Is Anti-Pot Billboard Example of Hypocrisy by Outdoor Ad Company?

Update below: At 10:30 a.m. this morning, Smart Colorado, a group "dedicated to protecting youth from marijuana," is holding a press event to debut a new billboard at 1935 Federal Boulevard, near Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The billboard reads in part, "Mom, is today's Pot a hard drug?"

In a release, Smart Colorado notes that this billboard and another, similar one on Interstate 270 near Boulder are arriving "in advance of the GOP presidential debate" at the University of Colorado at Boulder on October 28.

Does this timing make the billboards' messages political? Marijuana Policy Project communications director Mason Tvert believes it does — which is why he charges OUTFRONT Media, the company that controls the billboard, with hypocrisy.

Why? Tvert says MPP tried to secure the use of a billboard near the stadium to share more positive messages about marijuana and was rejected because of their allegedly political tenor.

Tvert has been involved in putting up numerous marijuana-related billboards along this stretch of Federal during the past few years. Take this 2012 billboard erected at 1660 Federal:

This time around, things went differently.

"We were trying to get a billboard for the period of the debate and were on the verge of signing a contract with OUTFRONT when we were told management wouldn't do anything marijuana-related," he maintains. "First, they said they wouldn't do anything about marijuana being less harmful than alcohol, because it was supposed to be political,

"So we said, how about if we put up a billboard that said, 'Welcome to Colorado, Where 62 Percent Support Legal Marijuana,' and cite a Quinnipiac University poll from earlier this year. But they said they wouldn't allow that because it would be political, too. And I really find that hard to swallow now that they're allowing billboards that call marijuana the new hard drug."

According to a Smart Colorado release, the message of the two billboards is important because "marijuana potency has more than tripled since the mid-1990s." 

“Our hope is that parents and children will see these billboards in Colorado — and on social media across the country — so we can have this overdue conversation about marijuana potency,” the release quotes Smart Colorado co-founder Gina Carbone as saying. “Not all marijuana is the same, and potency matters, especially for young people who are being introduced to these products.”

“Launching these billboards prior to the GOP presidential candidate debate in Boulder is our way to help educate the public and prompt a national conversation about the rush to commercialize marijuana," Carbone adds.

Here's a look at the billboard being debuted today.

Tvert's take?

"This is a grossly irresponsible message," he allows, "and it's not the way to educate young people about marijuana. Comparing it to heroin and other hard drugs is not going to steer them away from marijuana. It's going to make them think hard drugs are not as dangerous as they actually might be.

"That would be as misleading as saying, 'Today's grilled asparagus is the new fried chicken.' It's a silly way to go about this. It's really just trying to scare people as opposed to educating them."

Moreover, Tvert can't understand why the billboards he wanted to share with the public were rejected because of politics when this one is being allowed. In his view, "one of the few outdoor advertising companies in Colorado is denying people the ability to put up ads that highlight marijuana's relative safety compared to alcohol, but have no problem putting them up when they compare marijuana to hard drugs."

After speaking with Tvert, we reached out to Dan Scherer, general manager of OUTFRONT's Denver branch. He tells us he was unaware of this situation and said a company spokesperson would get back to us with a response. When we receive it, we'll update this post.

Update: Shortly after the original publication of this post, Mason Tvert reached out with a visual response to the Smart Colorado billboard.

Here it is: