TV Networks Profit From Pot But Won’t Talk of Legalization

by in Blog 10/04/2010

Marijuana legalization is the hottest topic in the media these days. MSNBC, CNBC, CNN, FOX, NatGeo, and CBS News have presented special features on marijuana business, medical marijuana, and the marijuana legalization movement. Google Trends is showing double the interest in searches and news hits for the term “marijuana legalization”. Showtime’s hit series Weeds, about a suburban mom turned pot dealer, is entering its fifth season. Everywhere you look, corporate media are happy to profit from America’s most popular herb.

Unless you want to address marijuana’s illegality and the lives that are shattered by the effects of marijuana prohibition. In that case, the corporate media cannot have anything to do with you, even if you want to pay to broadcast the message of ending adult marijuana prohibition.

Case in point: CBS. At the end of June, CBS’s new internet radio venture,, contacted NORML. One of our advisory board, Ann Druyan, advertised her podcast in Talkers Magazine, an industry journal for talk radio. ChatAboutIt was interested in hosting Druyan’s show, but Druyan wasn’t interested in the offer.

This is where I come in. I am a talk radio professional, having hosted my show (The Russ Belville Show) on XM Satellite Radio and AM 620 KPOJ in Portland, for almost two years. I have guest-hosted for the extremely popular Bill Press Show in Washington DC. For the past year and a half, I have hosted NORML’s Daily Audio Stash, the organization’s daily news and interviews podcast. I contacted ChatAboutIt to discuss creating a new live talk radio show dedicated to this incredibly popular phenomenon around medical marijuana and marijuana legalization called NORMAL SHOW LIVE.

Throughout the negotiations, the salesman from ChatAboutIt was fantastic. He joined me and NORML’s executive staff by conference call. We emphasized that we are NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. We told them that we would have advertisers involved with promoting marijuana – legally, as they are co-ops and dispensaries in California and Colorado – marijuana-themed magazines, doctors, clinics, authors, musicians, and so on. We told them we would be talking about marijuana legalization, our web page would have marijuana leaves on it, callers would be talking about marijuana, and, oh, by the way, did we mention that the show was about marijuana?

It’s all good, we were assured by the salesman. He said he’d run it all by his VP and this was fine. He said we’d own all our content and we could run all our ads. We verbally agreed this was a go and all we needed to do was to raise the $6,000 necessary to pay for the first two months of broadcast. We explained that we’d need to produce some press releases to raise the money. To be sure we weren’t saying or promoting anything in any way that CBS would not approve, we submitted our release to CBS, which did make some changes. They approved of our revised release and we posted it on the NORML Blog and front page on Wednesday.

Thursday morning I receive a call from the salesman at ChatAboutIt. “People higher up” had seen the release “on the blogs” and they “will not green light your show.”

Now, CBS has all the right in the world to decide what to put on their airwaves or cyberstreams; I’m not crying “censorship”. If they want to pass up affiliation with the most recognized brand in marijuana and a professional live call-in show dealing with the hottest topic in the media, that’s their call.

What I am crying, though, is “hypocrisy”.

See, CBS owns Showtime. That very same Showtime that’s aired for the past five years the tale of Nancy Botwin, suburban pot-dealing mom on Weeds. A show that films many scenes in the legal marijuana clinics and dispensaries in California that would be our advertisers. A show that just this year signed contracts with NORML to allow display of our trademark in the scenes where it is shown in Weeds.

And it cannot be that CBS is OK with airing a dramatic interpretation of marijuana culture, but afraid of airing a serious news program about marijuana culture. CBS News has an entire web special feature entitled “Marijuana Nation” (not-so-coincidentally the tag line of NORML SHOW LIVE) devoted to all their news coverage about marijuana dating back to Mike Wallace in 1968.

CBS will show Weeds to make money off of people who like marijuana, but won’t allow its banner advertisements for Weeds to be seen on any website trying to keep those marijuana lovers from arrest and a criminal record. CBS will pepper their news coverage and websites with cannaporn* and cannabusiness, but won’t allow a non-profit organization attempting to legalize those industries to have a voice on their networks.

Case #2: In addition to hosting NORML’s podcast and social blog, I am NORML’s Outreach Coordinator. In this position I recruit activists from all across the country (even the US Virgin Islands) to organize NORML chapters. These independent affiliates host events, gather petition signatures, and provide education to the community to counteract the anti-marijuana propaganda from the government (such as our “drug czar” recently proclaiming – in California, no less – that “Marijuana is dangerous and has no medicinal benefit.”)

I was contacted by the tour manager for the “Blazed and Confused” Tour. The artists performing in the most pro-marijuana concert of the summer are Mickey Avalon, Bob Marley’s son Stephen Marley, San Diego rockers Slightly Stoopid, and Snoop Dogg, probably the most recognizable person alive associated with marijuana aside from Willie Nelson. They, particularly Slightly Stoopid, wanted NORML chapters to host marijuana information tables for the concerts and offered us the opportunity for free.

I combed through my chapter listings and got them NORML booths for over half the shows. At the show in Portland I got to interview Miles from Slightly Stoopid and wander around backstage. The props for the Stoopid show were two massive five foot skulls with pot leaves on the forehead. Snoop’s show featured a huge backdrop reading “Tales from the Crip” and marijuana leaves were all around. Everyone performing at or attending this concert was very pro-marijuana legalization.

Yet this morning I’m contacted by the tour people who tell me they need to cancel the booth we have scheduled for the show last Saturday in Orlando. It seems the venue is the Hard Rock, and “because they are a Universal owned company they are much more conservative than your typical venue.”

This Universal, of course, is NBC Universal, the parent company to the MSNBC and CNBC networks that reported their highest ratings ever for their marijuana-themed news reports on the burgeoning cannabis business in California. The same NBC Universal that is happy to sell you Cheech & Chong’s Next Movie, Dazed & Confused, and Half Baked on DVD. The same NBC Universal that has no problem allowing Snoop Dogg to get the crowd at the Hard Rock in Orlando to chant “Legalize It”, but somehow can’t let a couple of college kids in NORML T-shirts hand out educational fliers about why we should legalize it.

Case #3: Another marijuana legalization organization, Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), produced an excellent TV ad calling for passage of a bill to tax and regulate cannabis for adults. The governor had recently called for an open debate about legalization and MPP created this thirty second ad to begin that debate:

Certainly a sober and non-sensational way to debate the issue. Yet when MPP offered the ad to California stations, Los Angeles’ KABC (ABC) and KTTV (FOX), San Francisco’s KGO (ABC), and San Jose’s KNTV (NBC) refused to accept the ad. KNTV said their standards department wouldn’t approve the ad. KGO issued an official “no comment.” KABC and KTTV didn’t even bother give the courtesy of a “no comment” – they would not respond to MPP’s inquiries.

I’ve detailed NBC’s and CBS’s profiting from cannabis culture. You’d think ABC, being a part of the Walt Disney Corporation, would generally shy away from profiting from cannabis culture. But a little digging shows they own Miramax films, which this year released Adventureland, a comedy about teenagers smoking and dealing weed while working at an amusement park and in 2001 offered Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back, the adventures of two inveterate stoners who wrote a stoner comic book. FOX for eight years aired That 70’s Show, a ratings hit whose signature sight gag was teenagers sitting in a smoke-filled basement passing around a joint or bong (never seen, however), with the camera focusing on each character as they “passed the dutchie on the left hand side.”

So it is OK for the corporate parents of CBS, NBC, ABC, and FOX to profit from movies and TV shows that satirize marijuana culture, but they have a “standards and practices” problem with their broadcast affiliates showing 30 seconds of a 38-year-old woman suggesting we should tax and regulate marijuana.

Keep in mind in these cases, we are talking about one part of the big media company raking in huge profits with shows about the marijuana community, while another part of the big media company refuses the free educational fliers, paid advertisements, and pay-to-play broadcasts BY AND FOR the marijuana community. Marijuana is the modern day minstrel show – we’re allowed on the air as long as we keep on our “greenface”, shuck and jive (or would it be “smoke and pass”?), and never forget our proper place.

By the way, the NORMAL SHOW LIVE mentioned in Case #1 will still be going on the air, as promised, on Labor Day Weekend. Unlike CBS, we keep our promises to our customers. The money raised will go into promotions and producing our show through the facilities of, which was happy to accept our business, and quite frankly, offers us a better production technology at one-sixth the price. Tune in every Saturday Night at 9pm Eastern for two hours of intelligent discussion about marijuana legalization.

*Cannaporn is the news specials that like to show lots and lots of pictures of big green sticky buds and the people smoking them, usually the same stock footage they’ve run for years with the most stereotypical “stoner” types they can find, lots of pictures of bongs and tie dyes, some b-roll from a music festival, or body-armored police helicoptering in to chop down marijuana plants, while intoning the reefer madness du jour about increased potency, psychosis, or clandestine cartel grows and violence that wouldn’t exist in a legal market. In other words, not what you will find onNORMAL SHOW LIVE.


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