Rocky Mountain Buzz Kill

Why can’t Colorado’s new pot PSAs tell people the few things they actually need to know about pot?

It’s just like, not unreasonable to talk about toking responsibly, man.

Photo By Craig F. Walker/Denver Post

Colorado is rolling out some new marijuana PSAs, and—against all odds—they aren’t a total disaster. For a cool $5.7 million—culled from tax dollars the state has raked in on pot sales—Coloradans are getting their own version of the hipster “Cover Oregon” ads. The campaign is called “Good to Know,” and features banjo music, a rhyming cowboy, a website with precious animation, lots of warm fuzzies, and not much else. It aims to “educate without alienating,” according to USA Today and teaches a few basics about the state’s pot laws, including that it’s illegal to take pot out of the state, to provide it to someone under 21, or to consume it in public. It’s a waste of money—Google, after all, is a thing that exists—but it’s also a teachable moment. By producing a mediocre, safe, bland campaign, the state has managed to helpfully highlight everything wrong with the way we talk about cannabis.

On the one hand, the campaign’s overly modest goals are understandable. USA Today says state legislators ordered “comprehensive tracking of marijuana use and its perception” and found that less than a quarter of Coloradans know it’s still illegal to sell pot to people under 21. (Dispensaries card pot-shoppers, so those who don’t know about the under-21 law are either abstaining or will find out pretty quickly.)

The main strength of this campaign is that, unlike previous efforts, it’s not a huge awful mess. Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office, for instance, rolled out a campaign last summer called “Don’t Be a Lab Rat” that aimed to dissuade Colorado youths from getting high by putting huge metal hamster cages around the state. It didn’t go well; the city of Boulder announced it was not interested in participating, and Colorado Democratic Rep. Jared Polis called the effort “bizarre.”

“Good to Know” and “Don’t Be a Lab Rat” are both parts of a long and storied history of marijuana messaging that totally misses the point. Though their tones and content couldn’t have less in common, they both fall into the same trap: giving would-be (and current) cannabis users maximum fluff and minimal information. Instead of detailing how to mitigate the health risks of cannabis consumption or touching on how to consume edibles for the first time without ending up on the floor in the fetal position, “Good to Know” repeats information that anyone who’s remotely interested could find in less time than it’s taking me to type this sentence. These campaigns waste taxpayer dollars that would be better spent on basically anything else, and they do precious little to actually make Colorado a better place for stoners and squares to peacefully coexist.

That said, there’s a larger problem here. There are two vocal, dogmatic schools of pot thought. I’ll call them the prohibitionists and the libertines. The prohibitionists—whose longtime dominance is slowly waning—hold that pot is basically the same as sticking blood-sucking leeches on your body. Former Bush speechwriter and Atlantic senior editor David Frum, who called medical marijuana “a laughable fiction,” exemplifies this thinking. And Bustle has a great roundup here of TV ads made in this tradition.

The libertines, on the other hand, hold that smoking pot is no big deal, that it’s way safer than alcohol, and that, come on man, everybody smokes pot, at least everybody I know, and it’s totally fine and, like, don’t even worry about it.

The first school of thought has a single goal: keep people from smoking pot. The second also has a single goal: make it legal for anyone to smoke pot whenever. And both of these schools of thought have perverse incentive mechanisms that discourage them from doing any sort of messaging on marijuana risk-management. Prohibitionists will never be interested in teaching people how to safely consume a substance that they believe is inherently unsafe. And for the libertines, talking about the risks of marijuana is a dicey prospect, since acknowledging any unique risks associated with cannabis consumption undercuts one of their key arguments for legalization—that consuming cannabis isn’t that risky.

These twin dogmas—that marijuana is fundamentally unsafe and that marijuana is utterly safe—dominate the national conversation about pot. And they tend to drown out any discussion about how to responsibly consume cannabis. It’s a problem we see in the new Colorado PSAs: They’re incredibly eager to talk about the letter of the law—easily accessible information that anyone who’s curious could find in two seconds on Google—and totally uninterested in exploring tricky, important questions about cannabis and responsibility. It’s easy to explain how to follow Colorado’s marijuana laws. It’s much more difficult to explain how to sensibly smoke pot. But the latter has much more social value than the former.

And, fortunately, it’s not unprecedented. The Marijuana Policy Project, which almost single-handedly got Colorado to change its pot laws, ran a campaign last autumn that mocked Maureen Dowd and gave its audience practical advice on consuming edibles. The website that accompanied the campaign’s Dowd-mocking billboards (the site itself is run by the Council on Responsible Cannabis Regulation) is straightforward and practical; it explains what constitutes a serving of THC and how much first-time users should consume. It also details how different kinds of edibles can affect consumers. (For instance, THC-infused drinks hit faster than brownies. Now you know!)

Marijuana legalization advocates argue that cannabis ought to be regulated like alcohol, which is what Colorado and Washington are trying to do. But legal cannabis consumption is just a means; responsible cannabis consumption ought to be the end. Messaging campaigns like “Good to Know” that treat lawful cannabis consumption like an end unto itself miss the point. They also miss the opportunity to teach their audiences what they need to know.