EAST GREENWICH – As the state considers the legalization of recreational marijuana more seriously than ever before, East Greenwich Substance Abuse Coordinator Bob Houghtaling is making sure the substance’s impact is not underestimated.
With Paws, a recently created feline caricature that takes design inspiration from Elton John, Houghtaling is fulfilling a mission he sees as harm reduction, preparing for potential legalization with the a message that can heard right meow.
“There’s a tendency to always look at the scientific side of substance abuse, prevention and treatment,” he said, “but we never look at the artsy side, the human connection side, the social dynamic. So we tried to infuse a little bit of that into the Paws message.”
Seeking a way to reach both high school students and adults about the impact of marijuana and the dangers that come along with getting behind the wheel while impaired, the East Greenwich Substance Abuse Coordinator wanted to create a character that could impart a brief yet substantive message. Working with his wife, Elaine, a Rhode Island School of Design graduate, Paws, a gender-neutral cat, complete with stylish glasses and fantastic fashion choices, was born.
“When you start to think about Tony the Tiger, or McGruff the Crime Dog or Smokey the Bear, how could you create a figure who could disseminate information and be a rallying point around an issue in probably 50 words or less?” said Houghtaling. “So we created Paws originally to address impaired driving and social hosting laws.”
The slogan of the overall campaign, which bears an affinity for cat-related puns, “Paws to know the laws,” is that message. The mission, says Houghtaling, is to promote wellness, health and safety and informed choices for both young people and adults as the likelihood of recreational marijuana legalization increases.
Since, the initiative has enjoyed support from elected officials, town officials, businesses and students. Informative posters have been posted around the community, messaging and articles have gone online and a Paws-centric community forum on impaired driving was recently held. Using social media, digital art featuring the pun-loving character display catchy messages, such as “A Tale of Two Kitties,” “While the cat’s away, the kids might play” and “I have nine lives, do you?,” are displayed to reach anyone and help start a discussion.
What’s more, Houghtaling is in on the jokiness of the whole thing.
“It’s supposed to be campy,” he said. “Look at some of the outfits Elton John wore. Why can’t you have fun? I’m taking the hidden message behind it most seriously, which is that we care about you, we’re trying to connect with you and make an informed decision; we want you to become aware of the laws and understand there’s help available, as opposed to being overly preachy.”
Houghtaling is concerned marijuana today is being used as a form of stress relief or dealing with anxiety and depression – a notion that should be considered gravely when the marketing of recreational marijuana is taken into account – if legalization happens.
“Kids, more than anything, want to be adult like,” he said. “How are we marketing marijuana? We’re connoting it with fun or a stress relief. We can’t forget, the eyes of the kids are upon us.”
“The people who do marketing for alcohol always depict ‘cool’ or funny themes,” Houghtaling continued. “Some of the individuals who make those ads are brilliant. Some of the beer commercials and other alcohol commercials, such as Dos Equis’ ‘The Most Interesting Man in the World’ commercials, are brilliant and they’re very catchy and I’m competing against that. With no pretense of being able to compete on their level, we have to compete with some real powerful messages.”
With Governor Dan McKee recently announcing that traditional end-of-school events, such as proms and graduation ceremonies, will happen in Rhode Island, Houghtaling wants to do the work now to educate a public that is likely looking to get back to some degree of normalcy after an isolated, stress-inducing year plus.
“All too often, some of those celebrations have an element of alcohol and it’s considered a rite of passage,” he said. “As we look at this time, with people trying to get back to those old standards, so to speak, I think we have to make sure that we haven’t lost sight of making good decisions.”
“I think it’s really important that we as the adults step up,” he added. “I think all too often, we put all the pressure on the kids.”
Heading into the future, Houghtaling is hoping the Paws campaign can also address mental health and wellness.
To learn more, follow Paws on Facebook @EastGreenwichAcademyFoundation.