How stoner sloths may help legalise marijuana

stoner slothThe Australian state of New South Wales may have done the drug debate an unlikely favour through its hilariously bad new ads warning of the dangers of marijuana. NSW Health Department’s updated version of Reefer Madness is a campaign called Stoner Sloth designed to warn teenagers about the de-energising effect of the drug. But the anthropomorphic sloths used in the ads have attracted ridicule and concerns the cuddly looking mammal will actually have the opposite effect, attracting more people to use the drug.

NSW Health’s campaign was launched with the support of St Vincent de Paul’s Alcohol Drug Information Service. The premise is that “you are worse on weed”, based on research done by the National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre. The idea has some intrinsic merit. Cannabis is a depressant drug, which means it slows down messages travelling between brain and body. However the health aspect of the ads are drowned by embarrassingly bad delivery.

Complete with its own hashtag, #stonersloth sets out to talk to the young about the effects of marijuana in language (and gifs) the department hoped the young would understand. Hit the books not the bong at exams, the campaign lectures (sound advice before exam time, though unlikely to be listened to AFTER the exam). It also warns about marijuana turning you into “that guy” at a party who is moody, listless and uninvolved (presumably unlike all the drunks who are the life of the party).

While slow reactions and a tendency to disengage can be symptoms of marijuana usage, the ads run into trouble transforming the stoner into an actual sloth, surrounded by human friends and family. Sloths are South American tree-dwelling mammals related to anteaters. Because they mostly eat nutrient-poor leaves, three-quarters of their body weight is devoted to their stomachs, so there is little energy to do much else. Their resulting lack of speed makes them ideal hosts for moths, beetles, cockroaches, fungi and other microbiotic creatures. Their low metabolic rates has made them extraordinary successful lifeforms in tropical rainforests. In short they are very little like the three young people named Deliha, Jason and Dave, the stoner sloths of the ads who can’t communicate with family and friends or concentrate on exams.

The campaign was designed to be shareable, especially among teenagers and it certainly made waves if not for the reasons the makers hoped. The hashtag #stonersloth became a hotbed of ridicule with people complaining about the stupidity of the ads, the cuddliness of sloths, and the apparent lack of consultation with young people.

Even NSW Premier Mike Baird appeared to distance himself from the campaign.He used his mastery of Twitter to riff about “Chewbacca siblings” and “no sloths being harmed in the making of the video”. Baird’s offhand humour is engaging but his comment that the video was “Quite something” is less than ringing endorsement of the message of his own health department and showed he didn’t see it before it was released.

The NCPIC whose message NSW Health relied on had not seen it either and are furious their message is attached to it. “NCPIC was not consulted on any of the creative elements of this campaign,” NCPIC director Professor Jan Copeland said. While some were worried about the silliness of the campaign Professor Copeland was more worried about the impression of the character of the sloth. “Associating a sloth with people being intoxicated may convey a positive appeal to people being intoxicated rather than the intended negative message,” she said.

The debate so far makes no mention of the elephant in the room: Cannabis remains an illegal drug to use, possess, grow or sell in Australia (despite moves towards legalising medical marijuana). The Northern Territory, the ACT and South Australia have “decriminalised” some marijuana offences, which means possession of small amounts becomes a revenue raiser for the state with minor fines applicable (arguably a tax on use, though unfairly distributed). In the other states, cannabis possession can lead to a criminal record (depending on the good will of prosecuting police) as well as larger fines, with repeat offenders still sentenced to jail.

In NSW, the home of #stonersloth, police can issue a “caution” to offenders caught with up to 15 grams of cannabis. There is a maximum of two cautions for each individual and police give out information about the harms associated with cannabis use and a number to call for drug-related information or referral.

These laws reflect a growing community belief marijuana usage is at worst a “victimless crime” and its widespread usage is causing unnecessary criminality. Studies show 34.8% of Australians 14 years and over have used cannabis at least once and 10.2% have used it in the last 12 months. Longer term effects of excessive use of cannabis can include memory loss, learning difficulties, mood swings and reduced sex drive. These are genuine health issues (the jury is still out on whether it causes schizophrenia) but hardly enough evidence to keep it illegal, especially when the damage done by legal drugs alcohol and tobacco is so well documented.

Stoner Sloth is a ill-designed schemozzle but its makers should be congratulated for at least putting marijuana back in the centre of public debate, however unwittingly. The road to legalisation is neither straight nor simple and requires new safeguards, taxing powers and managing community expectations. It is a complex debate our politicians don’t want to have, for fear of offending conservative media always keen to whip up outrage based on simplistic binaries of good and evil. No politician wants to be seen as soft in the “war on drugs” and the easy option is to support prohibition.

Yet support for legalisation in the wider community is growing. In Australia it rose from 26.8% in 2004 to 31.8% in 2014. The medical marijuana debate – legislation supported by Mike Baird among others – is casting a whole new light on the drug. As well as Stoner Sloth, NSW Health is also investing $9 million in clinical trials of marijuana use in pain relief. In the end it will Be Australia’s rapidly aging population and sufferers of cancer, Alzheimers, Parkinson’s Disease and more that will convince lawmakers to act. Stoner sloths are a stereotype, and just one tiny piece of a complex puzzle. It is up to the community to insist our leaders understand and solve that puzzle. Marijuana needs to come out of the shadows and be part of a wider health debate.

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