Welcome to the Stoner Bowl. Not only does Sunday’s National Football League championship feature teams hailing from Colorado and Washington – the two US states that have legalised recreational marijuana use – but the game has become a battleground in the fight over pot prohibition.
Instead of a $4m television spot, pro- and anti-cannabis advocates are capitalising on the hype surrounding one of the year’s biggest events through a decidedly cheaper medium: outdoor billboards.
Spectators travelling to the New Jersey stadium where the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks will duke it out will be greeted by 60ft-wide signs arguing marijuana is less harmful than beer or football and criticising the NFL’s anti-pot stance.
One ad shows a man lying face down holding an empty bottle, next to a football player wincing in pain on the ground. “Marijuana: Safer than alcohol . . . and football,” it reads. Two others show players alongside the question: “Why does the league punish us for making the safer choice?”
The ads are paid for by the Marijuana Policy Project, an advocacy group that supports legalisation and is petitioning the NFL to stop penalising players for using the drug.
“Why would the NFL want to steer its players toward drinking and away from making the safer choice to use marijuana instead?” said Mason Tvert at MPP. “If it is OK for athletes to douse each other with champagne in front of the cameras, it should be OK for them to use marijuana privately in their homes.”
Marijuana advocates have been cheered by rising public support. Fifty-five per cent of Americans support legalisation, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found this week. This month, the New Yorker magazine quoted President Barack Obama saying: “I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol” – although the White House was quick to clarify that he was not endorsing legalisation.
In response to the MPP ads, an anti-pot group called Smart Approaches to Marijuana has bought its own billboards nearby. Its ad shows a player under the words “Motivation, perseverance, determination”; a marijuana leaf with the text “None of the above”; and the warning: “Marijuana kills your drive. Don’t lose in the game of life.”
Patrick Kennedy, the former US congressman who chairs SAM, said: “It is not a safe drug, especially for kids, and we need to reiterate the message to coaches, parents, players and teens alike that it has no place in football.”
MPP retaliated on Thursday by adding two more billboards. One quotes Mr Kennedy saying: “I agree with the president. Alcohol is more dangerous [than marijuana].”
The other spoofs SAM’s ad, depicting a tequila shot below the words “Overdose deaths, violent crimes, serious injuries”; a marijuana leaf under “None of the above”; and the lines: “Prohibiting adults from making the safer choice is NOT a smart approach.”
The total cost of MPP’s billboards was $5,000, while SAM’s three spots cost $4,500 – a fraction of the $4m companies are shelling out for a 30-second TV ad during this year’s game.