Talk show host Montel Williams on Thursday accused opponents of an Arkansas ballot measure that would legalize medical marijuana of resorting to "racist" imagery with a television ad featuring an African-American actor portraying a drug dealer.
Williams, an outspoken supporter of medical marijuana, appeared Thursday at the state Capitol alongside members of Arkansans for Compassionate Care, which is campaigning for Arkansas' legalization measure on the Nov. 6 ballot. He criticized an ad aired by a conservative group opposing the proposal.
"Offensive is really an understatement. It's the most egregiously racist, false statement you've ever seen in your life," Williams told a crowd gathered in front of the state Capitol steps. "They've people sitting in a picture holding guns, talking about medical marijuana, and of course they happen to be of different colors to make sure you're as irritated and angry as you can be."
The Arkansas measure would allow patients with qualifying conditions to buy marijuana from nonprofit dispensaries with a doctor's recommendation. If approved, Arkansas would become the first Southern state to legalize medical marijuana.
The Family Council Action Committee said it paid about $1,000 for airtime to run a 30-second spot opposing the measure. The committee is part of the Coalition to Preserve Arkansas Values, which unsuccessfully sued to try and get the medical marijuana proposal off the ballot. The ad at one point shows a black actor sitting at a table with guns and filling bags with marijuana.
"The grass-growers and dope dealers would be in charge," the narrator says in the ad. "Arkansas doesn't need a state filled with stoned-out zombies, or the criminal activities that come from legalizing controlled substances."
Williams, who lives in New York, suffers from multiple sclerosis. He says he uses medical marijuana to treat symptoms of his condition, but said he did not bring any with him to Arkansas out of a fear that someone would call for his arrest.
Williams called the ad misleading, saying that there are no dispensaries that allow guns inside them.
"It's a way to see if they can scare people into thinking this is something different than it is," he told reporters.
Jerry Cox, the head of the Family Council Action Committee and a member of the coalition, denied that the ad was aimed at stoking any kind of racial animus and defended the spot as accurate. Cox noted that the ad also features white actors portraying marijuana users.
"Sure, he wanted to seize on that, but that's not the message we're sending," Cox said. "We're sending a message that this harmful act is going to affect every family in this state if it passes."
Under the proposal, qualifying health conditions would include cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS and Alzheimer's disease. The proposal also would allow qualifying patients or a designated caregiver to grow marijuana if the patient lives more than five miles from a dispensary.
Past efforts to put medical marijuana on the ballot in Arkansas have faltered, though voters in two cities in the state have approved referendums that encourage police to regard arrests for small amounts of marijuana as a low priority.
The proposal faces opposition from law enforcement groups and the state's top elected officials. Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, has said he's opposed to the measure and is worried about the additional cost to the state.
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have legalized it in some fashion. Massachusetts voters are also expected to vote on the issue this fall. Williams said he thinks having the proposal on the ballot in a state like Arkansas gives voters who haven't thought much about medical marijuana to take a closer look at the idea.
"I don't think the southern states are any different. We're just afraid to talk about it," Williams said. "We have people who control our thought processes by shaming us into believing that there's some moral reason you shouldn't be compassionate."
Chris Kell, campaign strategist for Arkansans for Compassionate Care, said the group did not pay Williams to speak on behalf of the measure and the group hoped he would return to campaign for the measure before the November election.
Andrew DeMillo can be reached at www.twitter.com/ademillo