Marijuana Ads Signal New Strategy in Push for Legalization

Washington — In the topsy-turvy world of marijuana politics, conservative Republican Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington state is the unlikely hero of the moment, lauded for trying to protect medical pot users from federal arrest.

In Florida, liberal Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz is portrayed as the unlikely villain, a politician willing to send sick marijuana-using patients to prison.

Both found themselves in television advertisements that ran in their home states last month, part of a new trend in the increasingly hot pot wars.

While marijuana lobbyists once were content to play nice in their media messaging, the new ads reflect a confrontational style aimed at exposing records and getting elected leaders to board the pot legalization bandwagon — or at least get out of the way.

The ads are tougher and more visceral, often featuring pleas from ill people who want to use marijuana legally. They portend a new strategy that promises to be on display in the upcoming congressional elections and the 2016 presidential race, when pot might emerge as a sleeper issue.

Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton is already under pressure to side with her husband, former President Bill Clinton, who recently reversed course by saying states should be allowed to legalize without federal interference.

“He’s testing the waters for her, and he’s smart to do that. I’m begging her people to get her to say something,” said Adam Eidinger, the chairman of the D.C. Cannabis Campaign, which has turned in 55,000 signatures to get legalization on the November ballot in Washington, D.C.

With Washington state and Colorado already selling recreational pot and 23 states allowing the drug for medical reasons, Eidinger warned that politicians who ignore the issue do so at their own risk. He said it was “unbelievable” that Hillary Clinton’s new book didn’t mention marijuana.

“If you’re interested in being powerful, you need to take the marijuana lobby seriously,” Eidinger said. “You don’t want the marijuana lobby singling you out.”

The latest ads seek to sway Congress to back a bill to cut off funds for the Justice Department to enforce federal laws against marijuana use in states that have voted to make the drug legal for medical purposes. After passing the House of Representatives by 219-189 in late May, the bill is pending in the Senate.

When Wasserman Schultz voted against it, a group called Americans for Safe Access ran a series of 30-second television ads in South Florida, calling her “out of touch.” The group said she was one of only 18 House Democrats to oppose the measure.

In Washington state, the group ran two ads, one praising Hastings for backing the bill and another criticizing Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers for opposing it.

The latter featured 70-year-old Larry Harvey of Kettle Falls, Wash., who faces a possible 10-year prison sentence for growing marijuana that he used to treat his gout and knee pain. His farm is in McMorris Rodgers’ district.

Hastings and McMorris Rodgers declined to comment.

In a statement, Wasserman Schultz said she supported “evidence-based medical marijuana treatment” but that she’d voted against the bill because it wasn’t appropriate to limit the Obama administration’s ability to enforce federal laws.