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“We’re Hispanics … we’re cool by default”: state anti-drug billboard tries to appeal to Hispanic kids

The message comes off as a bit offensive.

A new billboard approved by Washington state’s Department of Health tells Hispanic children that they don’t need marijuana because, it claims, “We’re Hispanics … we’re cool by default.”

The billboard was spotted by Mike Faulk at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in Yakima, Washington:

The billboard — interpreted as simplistic at best and offensive at worst — describes Hispanic people using sweeping, patronizing, and stereotypical language. (For one, I’m Hispanic, and I am most certainly not cool — by default or otherwise.)

It also doesn’t seem like a particularly great message. One possible takeaway from it is that since Hispanic people are all so cool, they don’t need marijuana to be cool. But that implies marijuana use is cool — probably not the message that the state Department of Health wants to send to children, given that the research does tend to suggest pot use is bad for kids and teenagers.

The Washington state Department of Health confirmed to me that it did approve the billboard. A spokesperson explained:

It is one of our pilot projects for preventing youth from using marijuana. We developed this campaign in partnership with Hispanic community members who have expertise in reaching specific communities. We worked to make sure the messages were extensively tested within the Hispanic community in the Yakima Valley. At no point during our testing did we hear any feedback that indicated this message may offend anyone. Actually, we were excited to learn youth found this message empowering and most felt a sense of heightened pride in their Hispanic heritage. We certainly don’t want to offend people, and our overall goal is to be effective in reaching specific people with information that resonates with them.

Prevention research is clear that strong cultural values and a connectedness to one’s community are protective factors against initiating marijuana use. Our hope was to provide the education and support youth needed to prevent marijuana use among all youth in Washington State.

A spokesperson also told the Associated Press that the state agency is sorry about offending some people, and it will review its anti-drug campaign.

So this seems like a well-meaning message about drug use that maybe could have used a few more sensitivity checks — or at least some less corny language. But for now, it’s the message that children are getting in parts of Washington state.