The omnibus spending bill the House approved yesterday includes a provision that would withhold federal money from transit systems that accept ads critical of drug prohibition. Rep. Ernest Instook (R-Okla.) added the language, which would penalize transit agencies "involved directly or indirectly with any activity…that promotes the legalization or medical use" of prohibited substances, in response to ads in D.C.'s Metro system sponsored by the drug policy reform group Change the Climate. In addition to the ban on criticism of the drug war, his amendment punishes the Metro system by taking $92,500 out of its budget. Istook was particularly offended by a poster that urged Metro riders to "enjoy better sex" by "legaliz[ing] and tax[ing] marijuana."
Upsetting people like Istook may have been the whole point. Joseph White, executive director of Change the Climate, told DRCNet's Drug War Chronicle he was "stunned" to hear about the amendment but added: "One one level, we are grateful to Congressman Istook for bringing these issues so clearly to the forefront. This gives us an opportunity to present our views and contrast them with his."
But as White noted, the attempt to censor anti-prohibition speech is clearly unconstitutional under Supreme Court and circuit court rulings that treat transit system ad space as a public forum in which discrimination based on viewpoint is forbidden. Indeed, Change the Climate is fighting the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority's refusal to sell it ad space on First Amendment grounds, and it was the prospect of such litigation that conviced the D.C. system to accept the group's messages.