WASHINGTON – Four major drug policy reform groups sued the U.S. government and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority Wednesday for refusing an advertisement critical of the nation's marijuana laws.
“Our ad was rejected because it provides the stark facts and plain truths that the White House fears will shed light on its failed drug policy,” said Graham Boyd,director of the American Civil Liberties Union policy litigation project. “Our ad does not promote or advocate drug use – it is an attempt to restore fairness and reason to drug policy in America.”
The ACLU,Change the Climate,the Drug Policy Alliance and the Marijuana Policy Project paid less than $10,000 to produce the ad,Boyd said.
The lawsuit is in response to an amendment to the 2004 omnibus spending bill sponsored by Rep. Ernest Istook,R-Okla. It instructs Congress to deny local transit authorities federal funding if they display advertisements promoting legalization or use of any substances listed in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act.
Schedule I drugs are those with a high potential for abuse and no currently accepted medical use in the United States,according to a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Web site. Some other Schedule I substances include LSD and heroin.
In a Nov. 10 letter from Istook to D.C. Councilman Jim Graham,who also chairs WMATA,Istook says he wrote “out of grave concern and displeasure at the recent wide-spread run of advertisements” in the bus and rail system advocating change in the marijuana laws.
Istook said members of Congress,staff and senior administration officials complained to him about ads. The most common ad showed a young couple embracing and the words “Enjoy Better Sex!” and “Legalize and Tax Marijuana.”
“At a time when the nation and the Washington,D.C.,area in particular suffer from chronic substance abuse and sexually transmitted disease,I find it shocking that WMATA provides this ad space,and at no cost!” Istook wrote. He said WMATA provided $46,250 in free ad space for the advertisements.
Istook wrote that he did not know why WMATA should expect the $67 million in federal funding that was approved before the Change the Climate ads appeared.
WMATA,known locally as Metro,provided free ad space to Change the Climate because the group qualified for a public service advertising program,said Lisa Farbstein,Metro public affairs officer. At that time,Metro was “completely content neutral,” she said.
Istook wrote that Metro had “exercised the poorest possible judgment,so I must assure that WMATA will learn the proper lessons from this experience and will only accept appropriate ads in the future.”
Metro no longer accepts public service advertising because it needs to raise revenue,Farbstein said.
The agency is “teetering on the edge of a fiscal and service crisis,” Farbstein said. Metro receives about $170 million in federal grants each year,she said.
“Given our critical dependency on continued federal funding,we have no choice but to follow the law that Congress passed and the president signed into law,” Farbstein said.
Across the nation,the government could withhold more than $3.1 billion in grants to transit systems if they accept or display such advertisements.
For example,the BART San Francisco Airport extension project relies on $100 million in federal funds,and the Sound Transit Central Link Initial Segment in Seattle gets $75 million,according to 2004 federal budget figures provided by the ACLU.
Virginia Miller,spokeswomen for the American Public Transportation Association,said few transit agencies rely on advertising for significant revenues.
“The federal government's response to open debate is censorship,” said Joseph White,executive director of Change the Climate.
Boyd said the federal law “clearly engages in viewpoint-based discrimination.” He said the government is able to spend “billions of our taxpayer dollars to voice its views about marijuana,” but the drug policy groups are not able to use private funds to counter those views.
The rejected advertisement shows a group of people standing behind bars beneath the headline,“Marijuana Laws Waste Billions of Taxpayer Dollars to Lock Up Non-Violent Americans.” Small print below says one in three adults in the United States has tried marijuana.
“Marijuana policy ads by Change the Climate seek to stimulate debate among citizens about how to reconsider marijuana laws so that we save billions of tax dollars and end the arrest of millions of our own children – arrests that result from something most politicians did when they were young,” White said.
“I am not aware of an instance in which Congress makes it illegal to argue for changing the law,” said Hadrian Katz,the groups' lawyer.
Boyd said the groups are fighting for their First Amendment right.
“One has a right to express one's views,” Katz said. “Sometimes even members of Congress need to study the Constitution a little bit.”