- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 23, 2003

The chairman of the House subcommittee on drug addiction said he is “outraged” over ads on Metro buses and in subway stations promoting marijuana use and risky sex.

Rep. Mark Souder, Indiana Republican, has sent a scathing letter to Richard A. White, Metro’s chief executive officer, decrying the “Legalize and Tax Marijuana” ads — public service announcements placed by Change the Climate, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit.

“I was flabbergasted. Drug use and pregnancy are two of the strongest things that prevent young people from finishing school and becoming successful,” Mr. Souder said in the letter. “And in D.C. of all places, why would you want to promote this?”

One poster shows a young couple in a romantic embrace and urges, “Enjoy Better Sex!” Two other ads ask commuters to “Save Our Taxes!” and “Protect Our Children!” by legalizing and taxing marijuana.

The ads appear on the exterior of 50 Metro buses and inside 150 others. They also are posted at 10 subway stations. The campaign began last month and will continue until the end of this month.

The Washington Times had reported earlier this month that the ads had drawn the ire of D.C. Council member Jim Graham, chairman of Metro’s Board of Directors.

“It’s an extremely sensitive [subject,] but one that we have to tackle. I was very upset to see Metro [posting] ads about marijuana and sex. We have a responsibility to the public in advertising to be truthful,” Mr. Graham said yesterday. “We will address this issue during an upcoming board meeting.”

Mr. Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, said the board needs to review its policies so that First Amendment considerations are not allowed to compel Metro to accept these types of ads.

In the letter to Mr. White on Wednesday, Mr. Souder criticized the transit system for its handling of the pro-marijuana ads.

“At a time when the District of Columbia is suffering from the dual epidemics of substance abuse and sexually transmitted disease, we were shocked to learn that Metro is posting advertisements encouraging illegal drug abuse and risky sexual activity,” he said.

About 60,000 — or more than 10 percent — of the District’s 572,000 residents are addicted to illicit drugs or alcohol, according to a study released this week by Mayor Anthony A. Williams. Drug addiction costs the city $1.2 billion annually in illness, premature death, crime and incarceration, the study states.

According to the D.C. Health Department, the city reports the highest rate of new AIDS cases per capita in the nation and ranks near the top in infection rates of other sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhea and chlamydia.

“Newly reported syphilis cases, while declining nationally, have increased 55 percent in the District between 2000 to 2002,” Mr. Souder said in the letter. He leads the House Government Reform subcommittee on criminal justice, drug policy and human resources.

He told The Times yesterday that he expected more responsibility from Metro officials — “people who should have known better.”

“It is one thing for this group to promote their cause, but I am more aggravated that Metro would help them,” he said.

Metro policy requires the system to reserve at least 10 percent of its advertising space for nonprofit groups.

Two years ago, Metro officials rejected Change the Climate’s ad campaign but reversed the decision after the American Civil Liberties Union took up the group’s cause, citing the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech.

Joseph White, founder and president of Change the Climate, has told The Times that his group is not advocating the use of marijuana but is seeking to prod discussion about drug laws. The ad campaign is the group’s third in the metropolitan area since 2001.

On Thursday, Metro’s Operations Committee will hear a proposal that would allow the transit system’s Marketing Department to use public service ad space to market the system to customers, said Leona Agouridis, Metro’s assistant general manager for communications.

“Thirteen percent of our current advertising inventory is set aside for PSAs. We looked at the utilization rate of local and federal governments, and they use about 3 percent of the total ad space,” she said.

The proposal would continue to keep 3 percent of ad space for the jurisdictions that fund Metro and allow the staff to use the other 10 percent to advertise ridership. “We are aggressively trying to build ridership and revenue,” Ms. Agouridis said.

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