Billboards battle over the marijuana message

Cars drive past a billboard alongside a highway in Newark, New Jersey, Jan. 29, 2014.
Cars drive past a billboard alongside a highway in Newark, New Jersey, Jan. 29, 2014.

In the run up to Superbowl XLVIII, there’s some trash talking going on and this time it’s nowhere near the gridiron.

Reform advocates from the Marijuana Policy Project placed five billboards around MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., promoting the National Football League to ease rules restricting the use of marijuana earlier this week. One billboard reads, “Marijuana is less harmful to our bodies than alcohol. Why does the league punish us for making the safer choice?” Another compares the 749,824 Marijuana related arrests in 2012 to the 751,203 attendees of the last ten Super Bowls combined.

Communications Director for the Marijuana Policy Project, Mason Tvert, explained the billboards in a press release. “Most Americans think marijuana should be legal, and laws around the country are beginning to reflect that the NFL needs to catch up with the times. It is no longer necessary or popular to punish adults simply for using marijuana.” The billboards coincide with a petition asking NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to end “severe penalties for using marijuana, especially in states where marijuana has been made legal for adult or medical use.”

Following the wide coverage of pro-mariuana advertising campaign, former Rep. Patrick Kennedy’s anti-drug organization Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana) announced on Wednesday the group's own set of billboards to promote their goal of preventing the establishment of “Big Marijuana.” The ads show a football player with the with the words “Motivation, Perseverance, Determination,” paired with a marijuana leaf and the words, “None of the Above,” alongside the images is the message, “Marijuana kills your drive. Don’t lose in thegame of life.”

A billboard advertising the belief that marijuana is safer than alcohol or football is pictured alongside highway 495 in Secaucus, New Jersey, Jan. 29, 2014.

A former Senior Advisor to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and member of the leadership team at Project SAM, Kevin Sabet, told msnbc that his organizations billboards present the message that, “For some people marijuana saps their motivation,” and that “marijuana and football don’t mix.”

The MPP wasted no time launching a response to Project SAM’s counter-messaging efforts. On Thursday – just one day after Project SAMs billboards were announced – MPP issued a press release announcing their purchase of an additional two billboards that “spoof” the Project SAM ads comparing alcohol unfavorably to marijuana and criticizing Project SAM with the language, “Prohibiting adults from making the safer choice is NOT a smart approach.”

Another ad features a statement made by Project SAM Chairman Patrick Kennedy during a recent TV appearance: “I agree with the president. ALCOHOL is more dangerous [than marijuana].” 

Mason Tvert, from the Marijuana Policy Project, defended the new ads, saying, “The folks working to keep marijuana illegal appear to have run out of compelling arguments.” 

No matter who wins the battle of the billboards, medical marijuana may be making inroads to the National Football League that go beyond Denver and Seattle. In an appearance last Thursday, NFL Commissioner Goodell said that the league is open to players using medical marijuana. 

Speaking to the press Goodell reiterated recent comments on players using marijuana, saying. "I'm not a medical expert. We will obviously follow signs. We will follow medicine and if they determine this could be a proper usage in any context, we will consider that.”

The comments came just after HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel reported that some 50%-60% of NFL players use marijuana, in many cases to treat pain sustained on the gridiron. HBO’s reporting also presented research showing positive effects when mice with brain trauma were treated with marijuana. The New York Times editorial board supported Goodell's openness in a column on Thrusday, presenting evidence that marijuana is "less toxic" than other painkillers, and urging the league to allow players the flexibility to "deal with injuries" as they and their physicians see fit. 

Twenty states, plus Washington, D.C., permit doctors to prescribe marijuana as a medicine; eleven of those states host NFL teams. A CBS poll released on Thursday found that 51% of Americans think marijuana use should be legalized and 62% feel that marijuana laws should be decided by the states.