Wednesday, February 18, 2004

The American Civil Liberties Union yesterday sued the federal government and Metro, seeking to overturn the transit agency’s recent ban on advertisements touting the legalization of marijuana.

The ad at the center of the dispute is headlined “Marijuana Laws Waste Billions of Taxpayer Dollars to Lock Up Non-Violent Americans.” Boston-based Change the Climate Inc. submitted the ad in January to run on Metro buses and be placed in subway stations, but the transit agency rejected the ad campaign earlier this month.

The ACLU lawsuit says rejecting the ad violates free-speech laws.

“We filed this lawsuit today because we believe that every viewpoint should have a chance to compete in the marketplace of ideas in America, including the viewpoint that current marijuana laws are not working,” said Graham Boyd, policy director for the ACLU.

Metro officials yesterday said the agency, which is facing a $1.5 billion shortfall in the next six years, risked losing $170 million in federal funding if officials did not reject the ad.

Congress passed an appropriations bill in December that bars federally subsidized transit agencies from accepting ads that advocate the legalization or medical use of illicit drugs, including marijuana.

The law prohibits giving federal funds to transit agencies “involved directly or indirectly” in any activity that promotes legalizing drugs.

“Given our critical dependency on continued federal funding, we have no choice but to follow the law that Congress passed,” said Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein. “To do otherwise would be a disservice to our customers and the region’s taxpayers.”

Marijuana ads posted on Metro buses and in subway stations last year prompted U.S. Rep. Ernest Istook, Oklahoma Republican, to propose legislation banning ads that promote legalizing drugs.

Last year’s campaign by Change the Climate included an ad touting marijuana legalization that showed a young couple embracing with the caption “Enjoy Better Sex!”

In a letter to Metro officials last year, Mr. Istook said, “At a time when the nation and the Washington D.C. area, in particular, suffer from chronic substance abuse I find it shocking that provides this ad space.”

Metro had rejected a similar ad campaign by Change the Climate three years ago, but the agency reversed its position after the ACLU interceded.

D.C. Council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat who serves on the Metro board, said he understands why Metro officials rejected the most recent ad, but he does not agree entirely with the decision.

“I think the Metro position is the correct one, but I’d also like to see us take a position that this advertising ban is inappropriate and interferes with our ability to operate a rail system,” Mr. Graham said. “We should also make an effort to support the ACLU.”

Joseph White, executive director for Change the Climate, likened the Metro ban on marijuana-legalization ads to government censorship.

“The federal government’s response to open debate is censorship,” Mr. White said. “Government censorship to quell criticism of its own policies should not be tolerated in the United States.”

However, Joyce Nalepka, president of D.C.-based Drug-Free Kids, a national advocacy organization, said the ban should be upheld.

“My concern is that Washington, D.C., like every other major American city, has a drug problem, and everyone is struggling to find ways to improve the situation,” she said.

“But these ads encourage using drugs. I would ask D.C. parents and teachers to speak out against this loud and clear,” Mrs. Nalepka said.

The ad rejected by Metro was sponsored by the ACLU, Change the Climate, the Drug Policy Alliance and the Marijuana Policy Project.

Officials from each of the four groups spoke at a press conference yesterday at the National Press Club in the District, where they announced that the lawsuit had been filed.

Mr. White said his group has sponsored similar advertisement campaigns in transit agencies in Oakland, San Francisco and Nevada. Attempts by the group to run ads in Boston were thwarted when the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority rejected the ads.

The group sued the Boston-based transit authority but lost. Mr. White said the decision remains under appeal.

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