LITTLE ROCK — Talk show host Montel Williams on Thursday accused opponents of a proposed initiated act on medical marijuana of employing racist imagery in a TV ad and called for the ad to be pulled.
The leader of the group that funded the ad denied the charge of racism.
Williams spoke at a news conference on the state Capitol steps organized by the measure’s sponsors, Arkansans for Compassionate Care. If approved by voters, the measure would allow people with certain medical conditions to obtain and use marijuana for medicinal purposes with a doctor’s recommendation.
The measure would allow up to 30 marijuana dispensaries to operate in the state, though cities and counties would have the option of banning them, and would allow patients who live more than five miles from a dispensary or their designated caregivers to grow a limited amount of marijuana.
"Offensive is really an understatement," Williams said of the ad by opponents. "It’s the most egregiously racist, false statement you’ve ever seen in your life. They have people sitting in a picture holding guns, talking about medical marijuana, and of course they happen to be of different colors to make sure that your are irritated and angry as you can be."
A spokesman for Williams later issued a statement decrying the ad for "clearly racist" imagery and calling for it to be pulled.
"We call on them to pull it, rather than attempt to justify it — if they won’t, stations should refuse to air it," Jonathan Franks said. "This debate is about the relief of suffering. We shouldn’t forget that."
The ad, paid for by the Family Council Action Committee, includes video of a black man putting marijuana on a scale, with several guns and plastic bags containing marijuana scattered around him. White actors in the ad are shown smoking marijuana, but it is not clear whether they are portraying drug dealers.
If the initiative passes, a voice-over says, "the grass growers and dope dealers will be in charge."
Jerry Cox, president of the Christian conservative Family Council, defended the ad, which he said aired on cable stations in Central Arkansas on Monday and Tuesday.
"I didn’t get into counting how many white people or black people we had in the ad," he said. "I think we had one African American, I think we had about four or five white people in there. Sure, he wanted to seize on that, but that’s not the message we’re sending. We’re sending the message that this harmful act is going to impact every family in this state if it passes."
Williams, who lives in New York, suffers from multiple sclerosis and uses marijuana to ease his pain. He said he has worked on medical marijuana legislation in 11 of the 17 states and the District of Columbia that have passed such laws.
"This bill as it’s written is probably one of the most comprehensive and well thought-out that I’ve seen," he said during the news conference. "Are their holes? Yeah. Are there things you can do as a state once you pass the bill? Yes. Are their administrative procedures you can put in place to squash any and every fear? Yes."
Williams teared up as he spoke of people like himself who could benefit from medical marijuana.
"Every single religion on this planet has one basic tenet: That when you die, you will be judged by how you treat the least of us," he said. "Well let you tell me something: The least of us are hurting, the least of us need relief, and the least of us need your compassion."
Cox said later the proposal is "a back-door effort to legalize marijuana all across the state of Arkansas. … That marijuana is going to go straight from the hands of individuals that have one of those little marijuana cards, it’s going to go straight from their hands into the hands of children."
Cox said Williams would get on a plane and leave the state after his talk, "but left behind, if this measure passes, is going to be all kinds of heartache and pain on the part of our young people across the state of Arkansas."
Former California Superior Court Judge Jim Gray, the Libertarian Party’s nominee for vice president, is scheduled to publicly endorse the proposal in Little Rock on Friday, the same day the Arkansas Sheriffs’ Association and the Arkansas Association of Chiefs of Police are scheduled to formally announce their opposition to it.
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