As the Internet buzzes about a new Maureen Dowd-themed billboard highlighting the dangers of consuming too many marijuana edibles, the New York Times columnist is grinning. “I love the billboard,” she says in an email. “I’m going to make it my Christmas card.”
The billboard is the work of the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), one of the main groups behind Amendment 64 in Colorado. It’s the first of many ads aimed at education in a new campaign they’ve coined “Consume Responsibly.”
Unveiled in Denver on Wednesday morning, the massive billboard features a red-haired woman on a hotel room bed, whose troubled look alludes to a column Dowd wrote about overdosing on edibles in June. Titled Don’t Harsh Our Mellow, Dude, the column details the horrific eight hours of panic she endured after too many bites of a Carmel candy bar laced with weed. “I lay curled up in a hallucinatory state for the next eight hours,” Dowd wrote in the column. “As my paranoia deepened, I became convinced that I had died and no one was telling me.”
Dowd implicated the marijuana industry in the piece, condemning it for pushing the newly-legal recreational drug without safety precautions for first-time users. “Some kinks need to be ironed out with the intoxicating open bar at the Mile High Club,” wrote Dowd. The billboard offers the advice she was missing. “Don’t let a candy bar ruin your vacation,” it reads. “With edibles, start low and go slow.”
Although many interpreted Dowd’s piece as damaging to the marijuana industry and its “safer-than-thou” attitude, Mason Tvert, director of communications for the MPP, saw it as the opposite. “Her column has raised awareness around the issue of marijuana consumer safety,” Tvert says. “It brought this issue to the attention of a lot of people who had not heard of it previously.”
With traditional marijuana education campaigns focused on fear mongering—part of the driving force behind marijuana prohibition—Consume Responsibly hopes to bring the drug into a positive light. Through television ads, billboards, and online and print advertising, the campaign is dedicated to teaching adult marijuana users to consume responsibly in states where it is legal.
Despite the pro-safety message of the campaign, leaders from anti-legalizations like Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana) are still skeptical. “This is reminiscent of other addictive industries trying to gain favor in the public eye by telling people to use responsibly,” Kevin Sabet, director of SAM, tells me. “The reality is that there would be no marijuana industry without heavy and near-daily users. This industry relies on people using irresponsibly, and no small ad campaign is going to counter the fact that marijuana is being sold as candies, cookies, brownies, ice creams, and sodas in order to appeal to kids.”
The MPP disagrees. “‘Anti-marijuana’ education campaigns have failed to prepare people for the scientific, sociocultural, and legal realities of marijuana in America,” says MPP. “They have exaggerated the potential harms of marijuana and omitted any discussion of its relative safety compared to alcohol and other legal and illegal substances.”
In the absence of an agreement on the issue, public figures like Dowd who decide to participate in the conversation will likely play an important role informing the public—a phenomenon that is far from new in the drug world. When CNN correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta ran a special expressing his support for medical marijuana, he started a national conversation that motivated several Southern states initially opposed to the idea to pass bills in favor of it.
Whether or not Dowd meant to cast herself into the spotlight, Tvert sees it as a good thing. “Quite frankly she strikes me as a sensible person. This is the type of thing where people like this should want to talk about it—and she did. The mistake she made is very common and while she made a few comments that were off-base in her column, the overarching message of it was very important,” says Tvert. “There are certain people who have the ability to have a significant impact on how people think about an issue like this one, and Dowd is one of those people."
Dowd doesn’ t take this role lightly. “I’ m in favor of legalization,” she tells me. “But they needed some better warnings and portion control for edibles, with all the neophytes rushing to Denver.”
If her likeness on the billboard makes waves, why stop there? “They could just run Bill Maher’s funny and great instructions to me on his show at dispensaries in a continuous loop,” she writes. Reassured by Colorado and Washington’ s “fine-tuning” of marijuana laws, Dowd is ready to take her image elsewhere.
“Now, on to gun control.”