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FRIDAY, Jan. 17 — Marijuana enthusiasts are crying foul at an advertising campaign by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services over its take on cannabis consumption.
An HHS spokeswoman said federal grant funding — totaling about $300,000 — was spent late last year on a series of Internet ads that warn about the “health risks and dangers” of teenage marijuana use. Those ads went live in December and are slated to appear on various social media services until mid-April.
Department officials intended the messaging to be simple: Marijuana can be detrimental to teenage brain development. But the actual takeaway from the videos is causing some industry insiders to raise their eyebrows, especially in a state that has fully legalized marijuana for both medical and recreational adult consumption.
“Ads trying to target high school students with a message about staying away from cannabis can be totally fine,” said Rick Thompson, owner of the Michigan Cannabis Business Development Group. “But these videos aren’t so clear about the target audience, and they use some inappropriate and well-disproven tropes about cannabis.”
All of the ads feature a heavyset, middle-aged man lecturing a supposedly teenage version of his younger self. The younger actor — who portrays a stereotypical, red-eyed stoner — is playing video games and eating pizza and is too lethargic to respond to the conversation while he’s chastised about the supposed consequences of marijuana.
“No career. No friends. No money. What happened to us man?,” the older man asks, essentially insinuating that all pot smokers are somehow incapable of graduating college or going on to serve as productive members of a professional society. “Marijuana messed with our brain. We can’t focus.”
“Don’t let a high hold you back.”
While research suggests marijuana can have a negative impact on teenage brain development, it’s not always clear what age range the ads are targeting. Some of them don’t mention any age-specific connections to marijuana consumption at all, instead appearing as part of a broader, state-funded version of anti-marijuana propaganda.
And the bearded “high schooler” in the video hardly appears to be teenaged — instead in his early to mid-20s.
“If you’re saying these sorts of things to high school kids, that’s one thing,” Thompson said. “That makes some sense. But if this message is intended for adults and is somehow trying to be a disincentive for adult use, that seems horribly contradictory when another state-level department is actively working to develop this industry.”
The subsequent response from the public on social media has been fierce. HHS has since disabled comments on its videos, but dozens have shared the clips with their own — mostly negative — commentary.
“This does nothing but harm patients and all of those that are potential patients,” reads one comment.
Another argued that marijuana use shouldn’t be universally discouraged like alcohol or prescription drug abuse.
“This is disgusting,” said one comment. “How many lives has alcohol destroyed? The state should be ashamed.”
The advertisements are supposedly geared to discourage ages 14-20 from smoking marijuana before they’re legally able to do so under state law. The state spokeswoman declined to address the obvious perpetuation of negative stereotypes, but she noted that the video clips tested well with focus groups before they were put online.
“We looked at things that would make the youth think twice about smoking,” according to the spokeswoman.
The marijuana section of the HHS website also directs visitors to more scare tactics and blatant falsehoods.
“If you’re lucky, using drugs may not kill you,” according to the MDHHS section on marijuana. “But it can kill your opportunities. Your GPA. Your relationships. Your savings account. Your college plans. The MDHHS is working to educate Michigan teens about the harmful effects and consequences of drug use.”
Visit this YouTube channel to view more of the new MDHHS ads.