BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. The government's huge 2004 spending bill includes 145 million dollars for war-on-drugs advertising, focusing specifically on marijuana. Those ads appear all over the Washington, DC metro system and public transport systems around the country. But there are two sides to every story, including this one, and reform groups have countered with ads that charge the war on marijuana, anyway, is a waste of time and money. Now those groups are also charging the government with censorship, because an amendment in the spending bill says that funding will be denied to any transit authority that accepts ads criticizing the drug war. The American Civil Liberties Union has teamed up with marijuana reform groups to sue the government and the D.C. metro system for censorship. Graham Boyd is director of the ACLU's drug policy litigation project, and he joins me now. Welcome to the show.
GRAHAM BOYD: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what precisely does the amendment say?
GRAHAM BOYD: What it says is that recipients of federal funds for transit systems -- so, not just the Washington system subways and buses but similar systems around the country -- they can run ads on anything they want to except ads that call for a change in drug laws. Those ads can't be run, or else that metro system will lose literally millions, perhaps even billions of dollars in federal aid.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:So they're free to accept ads that counter the government's widely advertised stance on marijuana, but if they do accept the ads, they must also accept the consequences that their funding could be yanked. Right?
GRAHAM BOYD: Well, I, I suppose you could put it that way, but I mean, honestly, there's no choice involved in it at all. The, the transit system would have to fold, would have to go out of business without the federal subsidies. It's worth noting, though, that these are paid advertisements. We are willing and able to support the metro system in Washington with paid advertisements, but the government says it doesn't like our message, and so it prefers censorship.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Describe as clearly as you can the ad that you say the government doesn't want us to see.
GRAHAM BOYD:The ad the government has censored here is a picture of a crowd of people - average Americans - people of different ages and races - and imposed over the crowd are bars - like a prison cell - and it says "Marijuana Laws waste billions of taxpayer dollars to lock up non-violent Americans." That's the headline. And then in the small text it explains that one out of three adult Americans have used marijuana, are subject to being locked up, and that hundreds of thousands of people are locked up every year, losing their ability to go to college, their college loans, their jobs, their ability to get public benefits of all sorts, and calling overall for a re-assessment of a system that is not working. It's not reducing marijuana use; it's not increasing the public health, but it's wasting money and destroying people's lives.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:When the Republican from Oklahoma, Representative Ernest Istook, offered this amendment to the spending bill, what was his justification?
GRAHAM BOYD: His justification was that he did not want to see public spaces being used to provide information that would promote, and these are his words, "promote the legalization or medical use of any substance that's listed as a controlled substance," in other words marijuana and other such drugs. To my mind, if the government is so concerned about its policy being questioned by the public that it has to essentially hide information from the public, I think that's a real sign that that policy is in trouble.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what happens next, then?
GRAHAM BOYD:Well, we're in court now. We filed a feder--a case in federal court, charging that this congressional law violates the First Amendment. I don't think it's legally a, a difficult case. It's hard to imagine a clearer violation of the First Amendment than having the government speak in favor of one political position but then censoring the other point of view. We expect a ruling from the court, probably n May or shortly thereafter of this year, and that would allow our advertisements to go forward. I think the open question is: what happens next with other transit authorities? Will they then agree to run the ads? Will Congress change the law? Will we need to bring suits in other places? And I don't know the answer to that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
GRAHAM BOYD: Thank you very much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Graham Boyd, director of the ACLU's drug policy litigation project, joined me from the Yale Media Center.