by David Kopel

May 20, 2001

I don't usually comment on editorials - opinions needn't be balanced or fair - but a Denver Post editorial last week asserted that the result of the U.S. Supreme Court decision on medical marijuana was "invalidating statutes in eight states, including Colorado." Allegedly, "the court's decision . . . left no room for  any of the [state] provisions to survive."

That's simply not so.

The Supreme Court ruled that the federal anti-marijuana law contains no exception for medical necessity. Nothing in the Supreme Court decision means that state laws on medical marijuana are invalid - only that the state laws don't have the effect of also invalidating the federal law. So in Colorado, if you use marijuana in accordance with the state medical marijuana law, you can't be prosecuted by state or local officials. You could be prosecuted by federal attorneys, but as the medical marijuana advocates point out, 99 out of 100 drug prosecutions happen at the state level.

A Mothers Day front page story in the Post claimed, "Some studies show that male-dominated fields often pay more even if they require less skill and education." Well, how about naming the studies, so that readers can assess them for themselves? And why assume that "skill and education" are the only things that should determine pay? What about risk of injury, exposure to harsh weather, degree of manual labor, and the hours?

Do newspapers have an ethical obligation to their most vulnerable readers not to run deceptive advertising? If so, why is the Denver Newspaper Agency, which controls advertising in both the Post and the News, raising money by selling ad space to a company making a sleazy pitch involving coins?

I'm told that both the News and Post on Friday were going to publish the ad that appeared in Thursday's Post, but since my deadline is Thursday, I'll confine my analysis here to Thursday's large display ad.

The tarted-up ad was designed to look like a newspaper article. It had a headline ("Public to get FREE U.S. Coins") and carried a byline of "Thomas Waterfield, Media Services." The text purported to be a newspaperlike story about the "United States Commemorative Gallery" giving away "free" coins. According to the story, "without notice, the Gallery decided not to sell the individual coins but instead will give them away FREE in an effort to increase awareness of the age-old hobby of collecting U.S. coins."

Tiny print at the bottom of the ad admits that the "United States Commemorative Gallery" has no "affiliation with any government entity." But the full-size main text of the ad creates a different impression: "The U.S. Mint has announced the release of the North Carolina state quarter. To insure equal nationwide coverage, you can receive an uncirculated North Carolina Quarter Free."

The "free" North Carolina quarter is available for $1.85. The five-coin set which is supposedly available for "free" are the five new 2001 state quarters. To get these five "free" coins, plus a second "free" North Carolina quarter, plus a display unit, you have to send $17 plus $2.95 for shipping.

To check on the value of this offer, I called Daryl Mercer, owner of Tebo Coins in Boulder. Tebo has been in business since 1968, and is a reputable place to buy collectible coins, as well gold or silver. Mercer told me that uncirculated 2001 quarters are available at his store for 99 cents each. Five-coin display units sell for $1.70 to $4.95. In other words, the ad (which also runs in the Rocky Mountain News) offers something for nearly $20 whose true value is, at most, about $10.

Indeed, explained Mercer, in coin collecting, an "uncirculated" coin really just means one that has no visible wear. Quite plainly, even a beginning coin collector won't fall for the "United States Commemorative Gallery" sale of "free" coins. Even so, the "United States Commemorative Gallery" apparently finds the Post and News to be profitable places to hook suckers. A few weeks ago, "The Gallery" ran a similar ad offering a "free" North Carolina quarter which would cost $1.36 to obtain.

One advantage of having two newspapers on weekdays is that one can compare how the papers treat an identical event. At the state capitol last Sunday, anti-gun and pro-gun activists held competing rallies.

Both rallies drew about 200 people. The News story, on page 15A, presented each group's point of view, with the anti-gun people getting slightly more words. The anti-gun rally, organized by the Million Mom March, was far smaller than a similar rally last year. "But organizers weren't disappointed with the turnout," the News reported. It would have been better for the News to write, "Organizers said they weren't disappointed with the turnout." It's not entirely plausible that organizers of any rally aren't  disappointed about seeing its size plummet by more than 90 percent.

The Post ran a beautiful picture (a man smelling a flower) from the anti-gun rally on Page 1, and then put the story on the first page of the Denver and the West section. In the Post story, an anti-gun organizer admitted "We're a little disappointed" about the turnout. The Post story gave many more words to the anti-gun rally than to the nearby pro-gun rally.

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