An Obligatory Preamble to Legalizing Marijuana


other beneficial side effects


       Marijuana is less harmful than alcohol or tobacco---a fact emphasized by our Surgeon General fifty years ago.  There has yet to be reported a fatal case of acute marijuana overdose.  Perhaps the worst thing you can say about pot is that it may bring symptoms of schizophrenia before they would have appeared otherwise.  So, if pot becomes legal, how do we avoid its being advertised?  Answer: create a new category of things neither legal nor illegal.

       There is a long and successful precedent for limiting advertising of drugs.  Prescription drugs could not be advertised except to doctors until the policy was reversed in the early 1990s by executive decree without legislative activity.  No hearings were held.  New Zealand followed our example, but reversed course in 2007 as part of negotiations with Australia to promote more uniform policies.  Now we are the only developed country that permits advertising of prescription drugs to the general public.  The latest drugs should be used only on patients not doing well on existing regimens to permit adequate time for post-marketing safety surveillance.  The Vioxx disaster is ample illustration of this point especially because it was a “me too” drug, not a breakthrough drug---many drugs with a similar mode of action were already on the market. 

        It is encouraging that most, if not all, of the jurisdictions experimenting with partial legalization of marijuana are requiring a doctor’s prescription.  This is a good temporary way to limit unnecessary and indiscriminant promotion.  I suggest a method that is better in the long term and has other beneficial side effects.  Again, create a new category of things that are neither legal nor illegal, thus permitting the prohibition of advertising.

       For example, as the world struggles to promote modifying life styles to limit climate change by limiting greenhouse gas emissions, how much more humane and effective it would be to merely prevent promotion of frivolous activities that consume unnecessary fossil fuel---or biofuels for that matter.  Jet skis, snowmobiles, all terrain vehicles come to mind.  People with a real need for these items would acquire them in spite of no advertising.  Consider snowmobiles for rescuing injured cross-country skiers.  Gradually the public would be educated, not coerced. 

       Perhaps it would have been appropriate to institute this change when prohibition was repealed in the 1930s---better late than never, and maybe start with hard liquor instead of including wine and beer right away.  Tobacco is increasingly less socially acceptable.  Prohibition of advertising it would help prevent subtle promotion to young people to get them started using tobacco.  Efforts to limit tobacco advertising a generation ago stubbed their toes on the legal concepts of commercial free speech and corporate personhood.  These two concepts rest on very shaky legal precedents.  For more details see Corporate Personhood on  

       Incidentally, here is an interesting story of why tobacco is not advertised on TV.  Very soon after the introduction of commercial television, the Cancer Society devised some very effective spots about the health hazards of smoking---so immediately effective that the tobacco interests “spontaneously” and collectively agreed to cease TV advertising in return for the withdrawal of the Cancer Society’s public interest airings.  The voluntary ban on advertising tobacco on TV was codified in 1969 by the FCC (Federal Communications Sommission). 

       Bottom line: we need a new word for the new category such as quasi legal.  Other suggestions for naming are welcome. These limits on promotion will enhance the public’s health and well being including reduced climate change.  Initially at least legal street drugs including nicotine, hard liquor, and devices for frivolously releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere belong in this new category.  As our economy inevitably becomes less dependent on consumerism, much more advertising will become redundant regardless of how it is labeled.  Facetiously, "Why should we limit advertising of marijuana?"  "Because smoking pot might lead to the use of tobacco, and we know that is harmful."


John A. Frantz, MD

February 27, 2010