Crew members assemble the oversized rat cages central to Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper's Don't Be a Lab Rat campaign. (Kathryn Scott Osler, The Denver Post)

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis on Don’t Be a Lab Rat: “It’s a bizarre, ill-fated campaign”

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) has strong words for Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper’s Don’t Be a Lab Rat campaign, which encourages teens to reconsider marijuana use via oversized rat cage installations and directly worded commercial messaging.

“It’s a bizarre, ill-fated campaign,” Polis told The Cannabist on Wednesday. “I think they need to go back to the drawing board on that one.”

The Lab Rat campaign’s cages and messaging — including leading questions such as, “Does marijuana really cause schizophrenia in teenagers? Smoke and find out.” — were met with mixed reactions when they debuted in August. Giant cages greeted visitors at the Denver Public Library’s central branch or up top Red Rocks’ main promenade, inspiring more smiling selfies than intense reflection, judging from social media and blog posts.

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Anti-marijuana organizations have applauded the state’s efforts while others have poked fun at or, more seriously, banned the cages from their property. The Boulder Valley School District opposed the use of the cages on its property, and the city of Boulder — a hub in Polis’ territory of Colorado’s 2nd congressional district — took a step back from the debate as it waited to determine the cages’ presence on the foothills city’s streets.

But the state looks at the Don’t Be a Lab Rat campaign as a success in starting the conversation.

“We are pleased that the Don’t Be a Lab Rat campaign has served as a catalyst to start a much-needed conversation among teens, parents and influencers about the potential negative effects of marijuana on developing brains,” Dr. Larry Wolk, executive director and chief medical officer of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, told The Cannabist. “We’ve received enthusiastic response and requests from educators and health and wellness professionals about bringing the Lab Rat cages and messaging to communities around the state, and we’re continuing this collaboration and outreach.”

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Wolk added that he and his team expected criticism on the campaign.

“Critique and criticism of the creative elements of the campaign were to be expected and have helped further the conversation,” said Wolk, “which ultimately serves the goal of the Don’t Be A Lab Rat initiative: raising kids’ awareness of the risks of using marijuana.”

But Polis still takes issue with the cages and their implications.

“Most people who saw them thought they had something to do with PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), like they are trying to free laboratory rats from the University of Colorado,” Polis said. “And also, kids are playing in the cages.”

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