By Keith Stroup, NORML Legal Counsel
Many of us who try to stay current with legalization efforts around the country were amazed this past week when ResponsibleOhio, the group that recently qualified a full legalization initiative for the November 2015 Ohio ballot, managed to offend almost everyone, regardless of their views on marijuana legalization, with their ham-fisted attempt to be cute.
As part of their bus tour to college campuses around the state, called the "Green Rush Bus Tour" (a questionable name for a group of investors who hope to get rich off of legal marijuana in Ohio, but that's a different question for a different day), to try to familiarize college students with the legalization proposal and build excitement among the millennials, the campaign introduced the world to "Buddie", a life-sized, super-hero, caped-crusader pot mascot, with a muscular green and white body and a green pot bud as a head, and a large B across his chest.
A cartoon character to help advance the legalization of marijuana. Now that is an advertising approach that seems to have a familiar ring to it.
Ever Hear of 'Joe Camel'?
Apparently no one on ResponsibleOhio's staff or working for their ad agency is old enough to remember "Joe Camel," the infamous cartoon mascot utilized by R.J. Reynolds to advertise their Camel cigarette brand from 1987 until 1997, to attract young cigarette smokers to the practice, and habit, of smoking cigarettes, and to their brand. Following years of pressure from the American Medical Association, Congress and several public-interest organizations, and a pending civil suit brought against the company, Reynolds finally ended the decade long Joe Camel campaign.
But to a large degree, the damage had been done. During the decade of the Joe Camel campaigns in magazines, billboards and other print media, teen Camel brand sales had increased from less than $6 million a year to more than $500 million.
Internal documents obtained during the civil suit, and by Congress, made it clear that the tobacco companies were intentionally targeting youth as young as 14, referred to as "tomorrow's cigarette business," to protect their future profits, even as the true dangers from smoking tobacco were becoming clear and anti-smoking campaigns were being funded with public dollars.
Americans were willing to permit the continued sale and adult use of tobacco, despite its many health dangers, but they would not permit the sellers of cigarettes to target our nation's youth.
And neither will they permit those who will profit from legal marijuana to target our nation's youth. The introduction of Buddie was a tactical blunder that should never have happened, and it caused the focus of the public debate in Ohio to move, at least for the moment, from the merits of legalizing marijuana for adults, to the perceived dangers presented by adolescent marijuana smoking. And we brought this trouble on ourselves.
Our Opponents Jump At This Distraction
Not surprisingly, it took only hours for the usual opponents to marijuana legalization to make the connection with Joe Camel, and to make the claim that the campaign in Ohio was adopting the tactics of "big tobacco," trying to entice America's youth to smoke marijuana. "Tobacco had Joe Camel. Marijuana has Buddie," tweeted Kevin Sabet, who has largely stopped trying to defend prohibition, and now focuses his anti-legalization efforts on warning of the pending dangers of "big marijuana."
"This is at best, irresponsible. The superhero theme clearly appeals to a younger crowd. A shameless attempt to entice young people," said Ohioans Against Marijuana Monopolies spokeswoman Jen Detwiler.
ResponsibleOhio Attempts to Defend the Campaign
In response to the widespread criticism of the use of the mascot, ResponsibleOhio made an effort to justify the program, and denied any attempt to target youthful smokers. Spokewoman Faith Oltman said the group is "being very careful about where Buddie's going and who he's talking to," telling reporters that the bus and mascot will be making more than 150 campaign stops in all 88 Ohio counties.
ResponsibleOhio's executive director Ian James further explained that "Buddie is a fictitious character that has a '21 and Up Club'. Buddie works on the college campuses to reach the millennial voters and talks to them, helps them with voter registration, both by mail and social media. It's all geared to the folks who are 21 and up."
But that will not, of course, silence the critics, not will it get the debate in Ohio back on the merits of legalization for adults, and away from the issue of youthful marijuana smoking.
Only putting Buddie into quick retirement can accomplish that, and the sooner the better. No amount of explaining what was not intended by the program will overcome the unnecessary political baggage that has now been introduced into the Ohio legalization campaign. ResponsibleOhio should immediately acknowledge the mistake, apologize, and move forward to legalize marijuana in Ohio. We are all opposed to juvenile marijuana smoking, and it should not be an issue in Ohio.
What Comes Next in Ohio?
The fact that such a silly, and potentially politically harmful public educational initiative would have been launched raises serious questions about how professional this sponsoring group of investors really are.
When the group of investors sponsoring this rather unique, investor-driven legalization initiative held a press conference in June of this year, they were described in the Columbus Dispatch as a group with lots of talent and campaign experience, and the ability and willingness to spend up to $20 million on the effort.
"Leading up to a November ballot-box showdown over marijuana legalization, ResponsibleOhio is suited up, on the field, and has lots of strength on the bench. ... If nothing else, the marijuana-legalization debate shows that ResponsbileOhio is no fly-by-night organization of potheads. It's a diverse, business-oriented team that includes veteran Republican strategist Neil Clark and 270 Strategies, a group which helped run President Barack Obama's 2012 re-election campaign."
Those of us who support the legalization of marijuana in Ohio will be watching closely in the coming weeks to see if this debacle was just an isolated stumble, reflecting a lack of sensitivity to the special concerns that apply to drug use and drug policy; or if it is a symptom of a group with more money than common sense.
Let's hope for the former.