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Michigan pulls plug on anti-marijuana campaign

Misleading advertisements removed after public outcry

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The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services is tapping the brakes on a recent anti-marijuana advertising campaign after facing backlash over its largely false and misleading take on cannabis consumption.

“The goal of this federally funded media campaign is to address a problem that is well-documented among youth,” according to an emailed statement from an HHS spokeswoman that was sent earlier this week. “We’re currently rethinking how to craft the most effective messaging possible for this campaign.”

With about $300,000 in federal grant funding, the department produced a series of short videos in December that were designed to warn about the “health risks and dangers” of teenage marijuana use. But after marijuana enthusiasts cried foul over the campaign last week, all but one clip were abruptly pulled from YouTube.

A spokeswoman said the ads were initially slated to appear on various social media and streaming services until mid-April. But after they were removed online, those plans have been “paused” altogether while officials decide on how to reshape the message of the campaign.

“Although the goal is to address a health risk that is well-documented among youth, we do not want to stigmatize adults who are using marijuana,” according to a department spokeswoman.

The ads all featured a heavyset, middle-aged man lecturing a supposedly teenage version of his younger self. The younger actor — who portrayed a stereotypical red-eyed stoner — played video games and ate pizza and was too lethargic to respond to the conversation while being chastised about the supposed consequences of marijuana.

“No career. No friends. No money. What happened to us, man,” the older man asked in one of the videos, 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.”

That advertisement, along with at least four others, were removed from public view over the weekend after several statewide news outlets reported on their controversial existence. Only one, 15-second clip that specifically warns about marijuana’s effects on teenage brain development remains online.

Department officials said they had intended for all of the ads to address research that points to marijuana’s detrimental impact on the teenage brain. But the actual takeaway caused some industry insiders to raise their eyebrows, especially in a state that has legalized marijuana for both medical and recreational adult consumption.

Rick Thompson, owner of the Michigan Cannabis Business Development Group, argued the videos weren’t clearly intended for a teenage audience and used “inappropriate and well-disproven tropes about cannabis.” And the bearded “high schooler” in the video hardly appeared teenaged — instead more likely in his early to mid-20s.

After HHS disabled comments before deleting the videos, social media blowback had been fierce. Some viewers slammed the recent campaign for supposedly discouraging the growth of a lucrative new state-wide industry and spreading a dated “Reefer Madness” mentality to exaggerate the negative side effects of smoking marijuana.

And it appears state officials took that feedback into consideration.

“It’s actually really encouraging,” Thompson said this week. “This is an example of the public rising up over an issue and the government responding. It’s sort of the American condition to distrust the government and expect them to just ignore these pleas from the people. But in this instance, we’re seeing a very responsive government.”

The original ads were supposedly geared to discourage ages 14-20 from smoking marijuana before they’re legally able to do so under state law. The state spokeswoman previously declined to discuss the obvious perpetuation of negative stereotypes, but noted that the video clips tested well with focus groups before they were put online.

However, it appears state officials are now heading back to the drawing board to rethink their advertising plans.

“Kudos to the Whitmer administration for responding quickly,” Thompson added. “As a governmental lesson, $300,000 is a pretty inexpensive price to pay. We’ve seen the government waste more money and learn a lot less.”

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