Phoenix Pro-Marijuana Billboard Receiving Mixed Reviews

A new billboard in Phoenix promoting a ballot initiative that would legalize marijuana for adults in Arizona is receiving mixed reviews on social media by cannabis supporters, some of whom declare it conveys the wrong message.

The advertisement near 7th and Lincoln streets is meant to poke fun at pot prohibitionists, featuring the word "Marijuana" in a large, Reefer Madness-style font next to an image of a woman's screaming face followed by the message: "LESS toxic! LESS addictive! LESS scary than ALCOHOL!"

Among those taking the ad in an unintended way is legalization advocate Brian Anapol of Phoenix:  "I don't know how that's a pro-marijuana billboard," he writes on Facebook. "I mean I read what it says. [But the public is] going to see marijuana with a screaming face. I do not agree with this billboard. I think it sucks."

Backers of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Arizona unveiled the billboard this week, explaining that they believe it bashes the irrational fears of pot prohibitionists like Arizona county attorneys Sheila Polk and Bill Montgomery, who are intent on prosecuting pot users.

"It doesn't make sense for us to continue to arrest people and charge them with felonies for mere possession of something that's safer than alcohol," J.P. Holyoak, chairman of the campaign, said. "It's ridiculous that we continue to keep this substance illegal."

The ad is funded by the initiative's financial backers, a group that includes the national Marijuana Policy Project and local dispensaries. Tens of thousands of voters already have signed the campaign's petition, and even naysayers agree that the proposed law will likely appear on Arizona's November 2016 ballot. Most polls show residents are split 50-50 on the issue.

If the measure wins next year, Arizonans 21 and older would be allowed to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and grow up to six plants in their homes without penalty. The law also would create a system of state-regulated retail stores that would sell marijuana products, with Arizona dispensaries getting first dibs on running the stores. An independent study concluded the tax placed on marijuana sold at the stores would raise up to $72 million a year for state schools.

Critics claim legalization would expand problems associated with the plant, such as teen use and vehicle collisions caused by THC-impaired drivers. But opposition leaders including elected county prosecutors Polk and Montgomery have employed fear to sell their viewpoint.

Montgomery has said publicly that marijuana is more dangerous than alcohol, a statement that's refuted by science. Polk, in part by using public funds, has helped spread a litany of lies about marijuana to central Arizona town councils and school boards. She claimed falsely in one widely published column that the deaths of 62 children resulted from marijuana.

The billboard's message seeks to refute such propaganda with a faux-frightening motif well timed for the Halloween season. But Anapol is not alone among those commenting online in believing that the satire goes too far and thereby helps spread the impression that marijuana really is scary:

* "Those statements on the billboard are completely wrong and false...Cannabis is by no means Toxic, Addictive, or Scary."

* "Not a big fan of this billboard. I think you could have done much better. This might actually be counter-productive."

Yet some consider the the message is cleverly effective:

* "This is a great billboard!"

* "Haha! Love it."

Kathy Inman, executive director of the pro-cannabis group, MomForce AZ, says she would have preferred the ad read "nontoxic" instead of "less toxic" but that the legalization campaign is playing a savvy game.

"I'm sure they approached it from the best political vantage," she says. "The Halloween theme was a good strategy. [And if they had said] 'nontoxic,' the prohibitionists would jump all over it. I know they don't want to give Polk anything to reply to."

An anti-marijuana group put up billboards in Phoenix several months ago, including one that listed an incorrect website address.
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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.