ACLU and Drug Policy Groups Challenge Censorship of Advertisements Criticizing "War on Drugs" in Federal Court

April 28, 2004 12:00 am

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Federal District Court Hears Oral Arguments Against Law that Denies Billions to Local Transit Authorities That Accept Advertisements on Marijuana Law Reform


WASHINGTON- In arguments in federal court today, the nation’s major drug policy reform groups urged a judge to strike down a law that bars local transit authorities from accepting advertisements critical of the government’s “War on Drugs.”

“Through its censorship of our ads, the government is hiding an embarrassing truth from America,” said Graham Boyd, Director of the ACLU Drug Policy Litigation Project, one of the groups involved in the lawsuits. “Marijuana laws are a cruel and expensive failure, a failure so profound that once Americans know the facts they will demand a change.”

At issue is the constitutionality of the “Istook Amendment,” a measure adopted by Congress last year that cuts off more than $3 billion in federal funding from local transit authorities that accept advertisements critical of current marijuana laws. With at least $85 million in jeopardy, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority rejected an advertisement submitted by the ACLU, Change the Climate, the Drug Policy Alliance, and the Marijuana Policy Project that criticizes marijuana laws.

The rejected advertisement shows a group of ordinary people standing behind prison bars under the headline, “Marijuana Laws Waste Billions of Taxpayer Dollars to Lock Up Non-Violent Americans.”

“The ad suggests a new way of thinking about how to address the issues of illegal drugs in this country,” said Joe White, Executive Director of Change the Climate. “But the government is so afraid that Americans will start thinking critically about our drug laws, that it has resorted to violating the Constitution.”

The Istook Amendment comes in the wake of a fiscal crisis for the Washington Metro, which has reported that it needs $1.5 billion over the next six years for maintenance and day-to-day functioning. Richard White, CEO of the Washington Metro and a defendant in one of the lawsuits, recently told the Washington Post, “We’re talking about a systemic service meltdown condition as early as three years from now? It’s a death spiral.”

“Today, it’s the government trying to censor ads that present an alternative to the failed drug war. Tomorrow it could be gagging organizations that are critical of US environmental policy,” said Bill Piper, Director of National Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “This isn’t just about drug policy-freedom of speech is on the line.”

The lawsuits, ACLU, et al v. Mineta and ACLU, et al v. White, ask the court to declare the Istook Amendment unconstitutional and to order the Washington Metro system to accept the groups’ paid advertisement.

“The government is afraid to let private groups buy ad space to say ‘Wait a minute. This isn’t working,'” said Steve Fox, Director of Government Relations for the Marijuana Policy Project. “The only purpose of this law is to stifle otherwise protected debate.”

The same groups that sought to run the advertisement filed the lawsuits. They are represented by the law firm Arnold & Porter LLP, which will present oral arguments on their behalf in federal court today. The lawsuits name Norman Y. Mineta, U.S. Secretary of Transportation, and Richard White, the CEO of WMATA, as defendants.

“Congress is trying to block needed political change by censoring speech that gives the public the facts about drugs and drug laws,” said Arthur B. Spitzer, Legal Director of the ACLU of the National Capital Area. “All messages should be allowed to compete in the marketplace of ideas. That’s what America is about.”

The advertisement, legal documents, a list of transit authorities affected by the law and other background information is online at:,,, and

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