Justice

State's Billboard Got Major Backlash For Trying Tone Deaf Tactic to Stop Teen Pot Use

As part of what a spokeswoman called a "statewide effort to prevent teens from using marijuana," the state of Washington put up billboards specifically aimed at Latino youth.

Unfortunately, the billboard plays on outdated stereotypes, and provoked instant outrage.

The billboard declared: "We don’t need pot to have fun,” and “we’re Hispanics … we’re cool by default." It was apparently designed with input from local teens, and is part of the state's "Listen2YourSelfie” anti-drug campaign.

But when the billboard went up in Yakima, Washington, on Tuesday, both local residents and Latinos around the country immediately went online to social media platforms to call it racist, divisive, and offensive.

Julie Graham, spokeswoman for the Washington State Health Department, addressed the controversy Wednesday, telling a local news outlet that the billboard was created by "a group of teens who were looking to figure out what kind of messages and images would be effective at reaching their peers." The Health Department didn't respond to a request for comment from ATTN:.

While recreational marijuana use is legal in Washington, it's still illegal for anyone under 21 to buy or possess it. Even so, teen marijuana use in Washington has remained stable among eighth, tenth, and twelfth grade students. This is part of an overall trend that sees pot usage either remain steady or drop slightly after legalization.

With these statistics in mind, the Health Department's choice to dissuade teens from pot smoking through Latino stereotypes is even more baffling.

For generations, Latino stereotypes and marijuana use have gone hand in hand. In the early 20th century, fears that Mexican immigrants were committing dastardly crimes fueled by marijuana smoking helped drive the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937, which effectively made the drug illegal.

That drive was led by Henry Anslinger, who would become the country's first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Anslinger was famous for his hyperbolic and racist testimony regarding minorities and marijuana use, including declaring that "there are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers." He also read a letter to Congress saying, "I wish I could show you what a small marihuana cigaret [sic] can do to one of our degenerate Spanish-speaking residents."

Even the word "marijuana" is an Anglicization of "marihuana," the Spanish word for the drug.

In the decades since, the problem hasn't gotten any better. The U.S. prison system is massively over-represented by minorities, and Latinos make up a large portion of that population. Even as more states have legalized recreational or medical pot smoking, it's still illegal at the federal level, and Latinos receive the largest share of federal prison sentences for marijuana possession or sale, with 77 percent.

It's difficult to tell how many Latinos are in prison or have been arrested for marijuana use, as the federal government's data source for national crime statistics, the Uniform Crime Reports, doesn't keep data on ethnicity. However, two states do track arrests by ethnicity, and one, New York, sees Latinos arrested at four times the rate of whites.

Beyond that, a report from the ALCU suspects that Latinos are arrested for marijuana possession at about the same rate as blacks, which is nearly four times higher than whites. Combining those two statistics paints a picture of a justice system that disproportionately targets Latinos, who, despite possibly being "cool by default," smoke pot at about the same rate as whites.

In response to the backlash, the Washington State Department of Health announced it would remove the billboard.