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We're Hispanics. We're cool by default': Billboard against teenage marijuana use called racist

An anti-marijuana billboard aimed at Hispanic youth came down early in Yakima, Washington, after public outcry that it's wording was racist and "lame." (Image source: KNDU-TV video screenshot)

An anti-marijuana billboard aimed at Hispanic youth in Yakima, Washington, drew ire from the public that it's wording is racist and "lame."

The billboard from the state Department of Health features images of Hispanic kids' faces along with the message, "We don't need pot to have fun. We're Hispanics. We're cool by default."

Officials have apologized.

"Clearly this campaign might have been effective in reaching the youth, but it is clear that it missed the mark and was offensive for others," said Julie Graham, communications with the Washington state Health Department, told KNDU-TV.

But the billboard wasn't created in a vacuum. In fact, the marketing contractor Idea Marketing — which is Latino-owned — listened to about 60 Hispanic middle and high school teens in the Yakima area who said they wanted a message that specifically spoke to them, the Yakima Herald reported.

“Doing a lot of the prevention research around marijuana, we have learned that strong cultural values and a connection to the community really protect youth against initiating marijuana,” the contractor's President Patricia Lepiani told the paper. “So basically, since they feel so proud of being Hispanic, we wanted to find a positive angle about being Hispanic.”

And how did that “cool by default” line resonate with focus-group teens? “All of them had a smile on their faces,” Lepiani told the Herald.

But when Mickey Ruiz, 17, of Yakima saw an image of the billboard, she told the paper it was stupid and offensive to those of other races.

“I get it, but I don’t understand what pot has to do with any different race,” Ruiz told the Herald. “I think it’s pretty lame, honestly. If people are trying to take out the whole race thing — like only white people being on billboards — then at least make it more diverse instead of trying to pinpoint one race.”

Anna Marie Dufault has been involved with marijuana prevention efforts in Yakima through the school system, the Herald reported, and said the billboard was “not designed to be racist at all."

The "cool by default" message reflected the response when students were asked why they or their friends started using marijuana, Kristen Haley, media and priority population consultant in the marijuana prevention and education program, told the paper.

“Overwhelmingly, kids said they were using because they thought it was cool,” Haley told the Herald, adding that they wanted to communicate to teens that they don’t need marijuana to be cool.

“It’s not saying ‘We’re cooler than everyone else’; it’s saying, ‘We are cool by default,’” she told the paper. “But lots of people can have the same default mode.”

Kate Pizano, 16, also didn't like the billboard.

“I understand that it’s targeted toward Latino youth, but at the same time, I feel like it’s implying that we’re the only ones who smoke weed,” she told the Herald. “I think I’d just laugh if I was driving down the street and saw it.”

She also told the paper that pot’s “cool” draw is "not a thing anymore. If you’re bragging about smoking weed, it’s like, ‘You’re lame.’"

The billboard was due to come down Friday, but the controversy led officials to say it would be removed two days early, KNDU reported.

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