For sure, Muni’s not keeping pot off the buses

[dropcap]San [/dropcap]Francisco’s misbegotten attempts to legislate legal pot in this city have, thus far, been a Judge Dredd moment. Just as in that film Sylvester Stallone “is just as bad as people who don’t like him say he is,” our city’s legislative torpor, neighborhood parochialism and capitulation to anti-marijuana zealots has been a display of government as bad as this city’s most hyperbolic government critics regularly accuse us of.

That … is saying a lot. But, last week, city government had one of those dreaded “hold my beer” moments — and propelled us even further into a farcical realm, banning marijuana advertising from Muni vehicles and property.

Come Jan. 1, marijuana will be as legal as California can pull off in a nation where Jeff Sessions is your attorney general. More than 57 percent of state residents voted for this. More than 74 percent of San Franciscans voted for this. But, to date, the only legislative action this city has undertaken is banning pot ads from buses, trams and Muni shelters.   

“I am urging the SFMTA Board of Directors to ban cannabis advertising,” read a statement from Mayor Ed Lee prior to the board doing exactly that. Now, when the mayor “urges” the MTA board do something, they do something. He appoints all the commissioners and has the ability to use the board to create a veneer of independence while actually micromanaging the agency.

Lee “urged” the board to nix pot ads on buses after a platoon of Chinese American anti-marijuana zealots protested at his Glen Park home on Nov. 11, urging him to nix pot ads on buses. Picketing outside a politician’s home is a bit tacky, but you’d have to expect more of it if it gets results. And, per Mayor Lee, banning pot ads is a moral necessity to “protect our future generations and communities of color.”

[dropcap]Let [/dropcap]the record show that, in order to save the children and protect communities of color, this city has found yet another way to siphon funding away from the public transit system so many children and people of color rely on.

And let the record also show that Lee, who is squired about town by a cop driving a Chevy Volt, doesn’t appear to be familiar with just what takes place within a Muni vehicle or, for that matter, on the streets of San Francisco — where you’d be well-advised not to tread barefoot.

Your humble narrator regularly commutes on not just any bus, but the 14-Mission — with a toddler in tow. Ads for legal weed approved by a supermajority of city voters are far, far from the most objectionable materials to be found within. Or without.   

Stating that vulnerable people must be shielded from the malign influence of ads for weed rings hollow when weed itself is plentiful on these buses; at times, they resemble a rolling blunt bazaar. People are smoking out the back windows. People are rolling joints. People are conducting thriving businesses. The future generations, it seems, are adept at multitasking.

The ads Muni has opted to chuck are anodyne, by the way. They’re all soothing white text on baby blue backgrounds or understated bland logos. There’s no Marlboro Man of pot puffing away or Billy Dee Williams libidinously pitching cans of malt liquor. But nobody’s reading the ads anyway, because everyone is glued to his or her phone. And if they looked up, they’d see myriad examples of addiction and misery far more gripping and real than some damn focus group-tested ad.

In short, this ban is the first — and only — way Muni has ever managed to keep drugs off its buses.  

[dropcap]Glancing [/dropcap]through the criteria for prohibited ads on Muni is more entertaining than you might think. Some of these prohibitions are awfully specific: i.e. “Any advertisement that encourages or depicts unsafe behavior with respect to transit-related activities, such as non-use of normal safety precautions in awaiting, boarding, riding upon or disembarking from transit vehicles.” You have to wonder what prompted this.

Other verboten categories make more sense. There are no cigarette and booze ads (sorry, Billy Dee). There are no ads allowed that are “adverse to the SFMTA.”

There’s no porn. Sorry.

Ads featuring firearms are supposedly prohibited. And yet, when a lawsuit-happy gun rights group submitted this ad, fully expecting to sue Muni for not accepting it, Muni accepted it.

And while the agency long ago did away with conventional “political” material of the “Vote for Ed Lee” or “Teachers Support Proposition X” variety, readers may recall San Francisco’s buses and trams were, implausibly, a battle zone for competing Middle Eastern worldviews. Adversarial ads rolled past incredulous onlookers, describing Israel as an apartheid state or smearing Muslims as closet jihadis. Conventional election ads of the sort that arrive in San Franciscans’ mailboxes by the bucketload were rejected as “too political” — but our transit agency managed to find itself saddled with vitriolic materials litigating the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum in the crudest possible terms.

Amazingly, this would grow more surreal. To appease the many people offended by the anti-Muslim ads, Muni donated revenue it received for running them to the city’s Human Rights Commission — to fund a study that, among its goals, examined the ill-effects generated by those very ads.

In April of this year, Muni expanded its ban on political advertising to exclude sanctimonious Mideast debates, and did so in a manner that figures to protect the agency from the litigious extremists behind these ads.

State Sen. Scott Wiener says he’s cool with that; racist loons ruined political ads for everyone, including him. Fine. But the pot ban has pushed him over the edge.

“You know, if the city was saying no cannabis advertising on buses like we don’t allow for alcohol and tobacco advertising, I wouldn’t even have a reaction,” he says. “But what concerns me is it’s in a broader context where City Hall is experiencing reefer madness. It’s a demonization of cannabis — that it’s going to harm our children and lead to crime. So, in the context of what’s happening at City Hall right now, the advertising ban does bother me.”

He hasn’t complained about it to anyone. Other than just now. “The MTA,” he says, “makes a lot of bad decisions. And there are only so many battles I can fight.”


Follow Us

Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

Join the Conversation


  1. I have to share this with my Florida friends lest they are preparing to come visit the “Pot free” state of California. They might do better in Colorado or Washington. Not that anyone but the tax collector cares about “retail” sales. Thanks for giving us a good laugh.

    votes. Sign in to vote
  2. Lots of things that we support being legal are not advertised on buses. Alcohol, cigarettes, pornography. So the fact that a lot of people want weed legal doesn’t mean the same people want to see it advertised in public, which makes perfect sense considering the previous presidents.

    As to the loss of income, what loss? Does a pot ad ban mean the space that pot ads would have been displayed on is not being used? Or will that space just be sold to someone else advertising something else? Do pot ads pay more than other ads?

    It’s hard to get an idea of exactly what the authors objection is to the ban on pot ads, and why they would be different than the reason for alcohol or cigarettes.

    votes. Sign in to vote
    1. The objection is, as Sen. Wiener put it, that this is not happening in a vacuum. If Muni perfunctorily decided to nix pot ads, that’d be one thing. But, at the moment, this city is in the midst of a depressing bout of craven and reactionary legislation regarding legal weed. So, this is happening in context. And, what’s more, this is the *only* legislative step this city has taken thus far and Jan. 1 and legal weed are both coming when we turn the calendar.

      If the city began parroting early temperance activists with regard to alcohol policy, then we’d have an apt comparison.

      Muni can ban vast swaths of legal products or entities from advertising on its vehicles. But it comes off as more than a bit sanctimonious to, rather literally, adopt a “won’t somebody please think of the children?” rationale while having no problem subjecting children (and others) to various bad craziness on those vehicles.

      votes. Sign in to vote
      1. Nothing happens in a vacuum but that doesn’t mean that everything is related.

        Sure lets look at context. The city supervisors, one legislative body, unsurprisingly are screwing up on passing rules to allow the legal sale of recreational pot in the city, which is 100% in line with them screwing up even seemingly the simplest of issues.

        Separately, the Muni board, and entirely other legislative body, decide not to advertise pot, which is 100% in line with their past policies to ban legal but adult limited commercial products (porn and drugs).

        You can try to make them related because…pot. But Muni’s actions (which are not the Sup’s actions) are in line with past policies.

        I hardly think that Muni has ‘no problem’ with children having to deal with crazies on buses. If you have a simple solution on how to fix that, I think Muni and everyone in the city would like to hear it. Pending your pronouncement on that, it is possible for one to tackle different issues separately. And banning pot ads doesn’t need to wait, neither does it limit Muni addressing those same crazies, nor does it limit the Sup’s actually doing their jobs on passing recreational pot legislation.

        votes. Sign in to vote
        1. Sir —

          You’re being a bit generous in calling the MTA Board a “legislative body.” The MTA Board is and always has been loosely veiled extension of the mayor. Period. Similarly, this mayor has pushed for some of the more restrictive and, in the end, unworkable elements of the marijuana legislation on the table now. And he has acted at the behest of the city’s fringe anti-pot zealots.

          So I don’t see this as being so unrelated at all. These dots aren’t so hard to connect.

          I have lots of solutions on how to better serve children (and adults) on Muni. Are you familiar with my work? Send me your e-mail and I’ll keep you busy.

          But, for starters, perhaps the agency should stop paying for motorcycle cops, as it long did and may still? Perhaps Muni shouldn’t serve as the city’s slush fund? Perhaps the money Muni spends on cops could actually go toward, I don’t know, getting cops on Muni?

          On another note, how akin is pot to cigarettes and booze? Tobacco kills people and the alcohol leads to violent behavior, accidental death, and misery of the sort easily observable in any cross-town bus (in Muni employee lingo, the men you see passed out on these vehicles are “sleepers.”).

          Pot does what, exactly?

          Finally, I’m not sure that pot ads on Muni were an “issue” for anyone but the zealots who seem to be calling the tune these days. Anyone who truly feels that this city has become more child-friendly by removing these bland, unsuggestive ads from our buses is delusional.



          votes. Sign in to vote
Leave a comment
Please keep your comments short and civil. Do not leave multiple comments under multiple names on one article. We will zap comments that fail to adhere to these short and very easy-to-follow rules.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *