Pot Prohibitionist Bill Montgomery's Anti-Heroin Ad Pushes Weed as Gateway Drug

A new public-service announcement from the Maricopa County Attorney's Office about the evils of heroin curiously shows an image of people apparently smoking marijuana.

The short, publicly funded PSA begins at three minutes, 57 seconds into the 44:21 video of Montgomery's semi-weekly news conference. With a striking graphic of the word "heroin" filling with blood like a syringe, a voice-over by Montgomery informs viewers:

"Heroin use is on the rise throughout Arizona." Following the intro is a series of stark photographs depicting a graffiti-strewn building, desperate junkies with needles — and some nice-looking folks sitting around a coffee table smoking a bong and joints. One man in the lower right-hand corner appears to be snorting something, and another man has a bottle of something in a brown paper bag. But as it's edited, the fast-appearing image centers on two women, one smoking from a green bong, the other puffing on a blunt.

The ad will be provided to TV stations and other media outlets this week, but when it will be aired isn't clear. Montgomery said it's part of a "multi-level" approach to educate people about the dangers of heroin use. The idea grew out of an award-winning project by Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, "Hooked," that aired on multiple TV stations in January.

Nothing about the rest of the video hints at marijuana.

A short skit shows a young man grabbing a prescription-drug bottle from a medicine cabinet, then collapsing to the floor as Montgomery explains that "prescription drugs are one of the largest pathways to the abuse of heroin."

This makes sense, since many of the prescription drugs that addicts use contain opiates, the same ingredient in heroin. But the use of stereotypical marijuana imagery, such as the bong and joint, suggest that Montgomery's office added the pot-party picture intentionally, to bolster Montgomery's opposition to a legalization initiative destined to appear on the Arizona ballot in November 2016.

The reason seems clear enough: The prosecutor's office is perpetuating the idea of marijuana as the dreaded gateway drug to the hard stuff.

"Research shows people who are addicted to marijuana are three times more likely to become addicted to heroin." — Jerry Cobb, Maricopa County Attorney's Office spokesman.

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Targeting marijuana in the ad could run afoul of a convoluted decision by state Attorney General Mark Brnovich's office.

In May, Brnovich issued an opinion after Montgomery and Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk asked him about the legality of using public funds to influence an election, with their goal being to lobby against any planned legalization measure. No serious financial backers have emerged to try to defeat legalization so pot prohibitionists are desperate for cash. Brnovich decided in an official opinion that they could use public funds for their efforts, to a some extent.

Following negative press reaction, including a New Times article that revealed how Polk had caused $50,000 in RICO funds —  money garnered through forfeiture proceedings — to be transferred to an anti-legalization effort, Brnovich withdrew the opinion. He later issued an amended ruling that emphasizes a state law against using public funds for campaigning. But he also noted that possible violations would have to be reviewed on a case-by-case basis "to determine whether such use was for the impermissible purpose of influencing the outcome of an election."

With the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Arizona well under way — and even naysayers admitting that the legalization question almost certainly will be on the ballot next year — Montgomery could hardly get away with running an anti-marijuana ad now, not even one disguised as an anti-substance-abuse message. 

But he apparently believes he can chuck a picture of people smoking pot in an anti-heroin ad.

The ad was produced with $4,800 in RICO funds, says Jerry Cobb, Montgomery's spokesman. Broadcasters will air the video for free, he says.

Cobb denied that the picture is an attempt at a subliminal message, saying it's just a general shot of people using drugs.

"One of the ways people ingest heroin is by smoking it," Cobb says.

But Montgomery's spokesman says the picture might indeed suggest that pot is a gateway drug.

"I doubt many people are going to make that leap based on an image that lasts less than a second, but to the extent that they do, it is entirely valid since research shows people who are addicted to marijuana are three times more likely to become addicted to heroin."

He referenced studies from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

"The primary message we wanted to get out was the link between prescription medication and heroin," he says.

The secondary message, presumably, is Montgomery's aggressive stance against marijuana legalization.