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If the War on Drugs has a fuel, it is fear. From Harry Anslinger and Reefer Madness to mandatory minimums and the DEA, almost every key development in the century-old movement to banish marijuana was born of terror.

Marijuana Scare TacticsOne of the nation’s largest pro-marijuana groups, the Marijuana Policy Project, is playing off that fact in a campaign to convince voters legalization is right for them. MPP’s message: The only reason to vote against legal cannabis is irrational fear.

The group has paid to put up a billboard in Phoenix, above Seventh and Lincoln streets. Arizona voters could decide to legalize marijuana for any use in the 2016 election, and MPP is trying to encourage support for the idea. Activists are gathering signatures to put the issue on next year’s ballot.

Cannabis is legal in the District of Columbia and four states: Oregon, Alaska, Washington, and Colorado. It is allowed for some degree of medical use in another 33 states, including Arizona.

Legalization likely in Arizona

Legalization is a fairly good bet in the state, if not in 2016 then within a few years of that. Neighboring California has one of the nation’s most liberal cannabis systems, and Arizona has a strong libertarian tilt that lends itself to cannabis reform.

But there is also a staunch law-and-order streak to the state’s politics. Maricopa County, for instance, is home to Sheriff Joe Arpaio, arguably the most controversial law enforcement official in the United States. And that means opponents of reform have a considerable platform.

Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk serves as vice chairwoman of Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy, an anti-marijuana group made up of police and prosecutors. She has launched an effort to defeat legalization even before it makes the ballot. As MPP notes, her crusade is based on thinly veiled fear mongering.

Mocking drug war scare tactics

And that’s where the billboard comes in. The idea behind the ad was to make fun of the drug war scare tactics and fight them with humor.

“Marijuana is illegal thanks to decades of anti-marijuana propaganda and fear mongering,” J.P. Holyoak, chairman of the billboard campaign, said in a press release. “Once people find out it is actually safer than alcohol, they tend to agree it should not be a crime for adults to use it responsibly.”

Anyone who has paid attention to the history of cannabis knows this undercurrent of fear has run strong for at least a century. Marijuana was banned in 1937 after an intense campaign to scare the daylights out of ill-informed Americans and turn them against the drug. It culminated with Reefer Madness, possibly the most offensively hysterical movie ever made.

Perceptions are shifting

Marijuana PlantBut times are changing. Young voters in particular no longer see anything to fear in marijuana. They’ve used the drug, they’ve seen their friends use it, even their families, and they know it rarely hurts anyone. These are the voters MPP is reaching for, in part by playing off the lurid posters that once advertised the notorious film.

“Over the next 12 months, our opponents are going to do everything they can to scare Arizonans into keeping marijuana illegal,” Holyoak said. “We just want voters to remember that we’re talking about a substance that is proven to be less harmful than alcohol.”

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About the Author: Matt Brooks

Matt is a journalist from San Francisco who has specialized in marijuana policy for more than six years.

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