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Gary Chambers during his run for the 2nd congressional district in New Orleans, La. Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. (Photo by Max Becherer, NOLA.com, The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

Facing what experts say is an unwinnable race, Gary Chambers Jr. took an attention-getting approach Tuesday in the first ad of his campaign to unseat U.S. Sen. John N. Kennedy.

Chambers Jr. puffs on a rolled blunt of marijuana while in a voice-over he decries the impact of anti-drug laws and calls for the decriminalization of those who possess small amounts of pot.

“Since 2010, state and local police have arrested an estimated 7.3 million Americans for violating marijuana laws, over half of all drug arrests,” Chambers, a Democrat, said in the online ad. “Black people are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana laws than white people. States waste $3.7 billion enforcing marijuana laws every year.”

The 37-second ad begins with Chambers saying that someone is arrested in the United States every 37 seconds for marijuana possession.

The spot appeals directly to Chambers’ progressive base and demonstrates his ability to attract attention, political experts said. They added that they couldn’t remember any candidate for statewide office – or for probably any office in Louisiana – who openly smoked marijuana while making an appeal to voters.

“When you’re running for the U.S. Senate, the most important thing is name recognition,” said Gary Clark, who chairs the School of Social Policy at Dillard. “He’s very good at social media. They’re going to know his name in Alexandria, Monroe, Shreveport and those communities.”

With election day more than nine months away, it’s far too early to know whether Chambers’ unusual ad will advance his campaign against Kennedy, a Republican who has former President Donald Trump’s endorsement, has $10 million in cash and has made no major missteps yet during his five years in the Senate.

But John Couvillon, a Baton Rouge-based pollster and demographer, said Chambers is tapping into rapidly changing public attitudes.

“Ten years ago, I suspect it would have been way out of the norm,” Couvillon said. “Nobody then talked about that kind of change in marijuana policy.”

But Couvillon found public support for legalizing medicinal and recreational marijuana to be 54% in 2020 and 67% only a year later, in surveys for the Louisiana Association for Therapeutic Alternatives.

Even a majority of Republicans now support legalization, Couvillon said.

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Two Democrats -- Luke Mixon and Gary Chambers Jr. -- are challenging John Kennedy in U.S. Senate race

The Republican-controlled Legislature has responded to that by relaxing the state’s traditional anti-drug laws in recent years. Lawmakers began in 2016 by legalizing marijuana to treat a specific list of maladies with a liquid form of cannabis purchased at licensed pharmacies. Last year, the Legislature loosened the reins further by allowing people beginning in January to buy the loose flower to purchase joints or blunts, which are typically wrapped in tobacco leaf. Consumers need what is essentially a doctor's prescription.

Chambers, a Black community activist from Baton Rouge, filmed the ad while sitting in a chair in a field across from City Park in New Orleans. It aired shortly after the City Council passed an ordinance instructing police not to arrest or even cite people for small amounts of marijuana.

Chambers released his ad only a week after announcing his candidacy.

“For too long, candidates have used the legalization of marijuana as an empty talking point in order to appeal to progressive voters,” he said in a statement. “I hope this ad works to not only destigmatize the use of marijuana, but also forces a new conversation that creates the pathway to legalize this beneficial drug, and forgive those who were arrested due to outdated ideology.”

Amid growing pains for Louisiana medical marijuana, advocates look to open up the market

Forgotten for the moment is Luke Mixon, the other Democrat in the race, a White moderate who was a Navy fighter pilot. He is now a commercial pilot who would be fired for appearing in a similar ad.

In an email, Mixon said he has never smoked pot.

“I support legalization and I'm opposed to prison sentences for small, nonviolent marijuana charges,” he said. “But I'm also opposed to encouraging people to use alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes. Louisiana ranks near the bottom in almost every measurable health outcome. We need to improve on that.”

This type of ad could pose a problem for Mixon as he seeks to become a credible candidate, said Mary-Patricia Wray, a political strategist in Baton Rouge who handled press for Kennedy’s Democratic opponent in 2016.

“Luke Mixon will have to find a way to make pragmatism sexy,” said Wray. “I’m not envious of the people who have to figure that out. You have to meet voters where they are, and they’re on the fringes.”

Email Tyler Bridges at tbridges@theadvocate.com.