Local televisions stations have refused to run an infomercial about marijuana laws because, according to one executive, the infomercial promotes the use of marijuana. But one of those stations, KOMO TV, made thousands of dollars without even airing the show.
“Smoking marijuana is illegal and we don’t promote things that are illegal on our television station,” says Jim Clayton, KOMO's vice president and general manager. “We don’t tell people to go rob banks, either.” He says he rejected the program because airing it would jeopardize the station’s license with the Federal Communications Commission.
“It supported that people smoke marijuana,” Clayton says. But when repeatedly pressed for an example of how the show advocated marijuana use, Clayton told me, “I don’t know. I watched it a few weeks ago, and I don’t remember anything specific.”
Producers of Marijuana: It’s Time for a Conversation, hosted by mild-mannered travel writer Rick Steves, say the program doesn't advocate pot smoking, only talking about pot laws. Alison Holcomb, director of the ACLU of Washington’s Marijuana Education Project, which created the show, says, “There’s nothing in the show that advocates that anyone use marijuana.” The script never advises that anyone smoke marijuana, nor does the screen ever flash an image of pot. “In fact, there are specific statements addressing situations in which individuals shouldn’t use marijuana, and that young people should not use marijuana.” She adds: “Everything in the program is about the impact that marijuana laws have on communities.”
In addition to KOMO (the ABC affiliate), KIRO (with CBS) rejected the 30-minute show outright, and KING (along with its sister station KONG, both with NBC) would only allow the program to air after 1 a.m. Neither of those stations returned calls to The Stranger.
More than anything, KOMO’s decision seems more about the political conviction of the ad rather than its content. But that came as a shock to the ACLU.
Holcomb says the ACLU provided copies of the script in advance on the condition it would be approved before renting KOMO’s studios and paying for KOMO's crews at Fisher Plaza. She says she asked KOMO to “tell us if you will have objections to the content before we incur the expense of filming the audience portion in their studio, and we never heard any objection.” But, she says, “Once we filmed it and handed it to them, they wouldn’t sell us any time slots.”
Clayton says he had initially supported airing the show because he thought it was about medical marijuana. “We looked at it differently because it would be for a specific medical service,” he says. But he changed his mind on Monday, August 4, after a meeting with ACLU of Washington director Kathleen Taylor.
But if KOMO was actually afraid of losing its federal license, whether or not the show focuses on medical marijuana would be irrelevant; the federal government doesn’t distinguish between recreational and medical pot.
Clayton says that if the ACLU wants his station to discuss marijuana laws, the group should run a ballot initiative. The problem, of course, is that only a minority of the electorate supports reforming marijuana laws, so, in order to win a ballot measure, the ACLU must first encourage a public conversation about pot.
“We’re trying to provide information that’s not tainted by either the hysteria of reefer madness, nor by the giggle factor of Cheech and Chong,” says Holcomb. However, KOMO and the other stations can't resist cashing in on commercials for the White House’s hysterical anti-drug campaign or ads for beer and Viagra during breaks in movies and sitcoms that depict pot smoking. But when presented with the bland truth of pot policy, local TV stations can’t afford it.
The ACLU's show is now only available on Comcast’s On Demand cable and at MarijuanaConversation.org.