Press coverage helped pass medical pot in Arizona

The untold story behind medical marijuana’s success

By Ed Gogek, MD

Despite all the coverage of  “medical” marijuana in Arizona, the news media’s own role in promoting this law has gone unreported. Yet it’s an important story.

Marijuana dispensary & typical patient--healthy, young, male.

Marijuana dispensary & typical patient–healthy, young, male.

In 2010, when Proposition 203 was on Arizona’s ballot, opponents predicted the pot would go mostly to drug abuse. There was good evidence. Colorado and Oregon had similar laws, and 94 percent of their medical marijuana patients claimed pain, which is easy to fake. Only four percent claimed cancer. Also, the patients were disproportionately young and male.

Supporters, on the other hand, insisted the law was only for serious illnesses like cancer.

Which side people believed mattered. The public could be expected to vote for Prop 203 if they believed it was compassionate care, and against the initiative if they thought it was mostly drug abuse. So reporters should have presented both sides of the debate.

Instead, one TV station, ABC15, did one story about the drug abuse masquerading as medical care in California. The rest of the Arizona’s news coverage was almost entirely about pot¹s role in treating serious illnesses, especially cancer.

For example, Cronkite News ran a story that did quote the opposition–in the 15th paragraph. But their headline, “Supporters: Ailing Arizonans would benefit from medical marijuana,” and the bulk of the story was about marijuana’s role in medical care.

Fox 10’s report on the initiative didn’t even mention the opposition; all they showed were interviews with two cancer survivors. Voters can hardly be blamed for thinking that’s all Prop 203 was about.

However, at least those stories attributed pro-marijuana statements to the people who made them. Many news outlets actually took the pro-marijuana position and presented it as fact, despite evidence that it was factually wrong.

The Associated Press wrote: “This proposal would allow the use of the drug only for serious diseases including cancer.”

Phoenix Fox 10: “The question here is should it be legal here in Arizona for people who are seriously ill.”

The Arizona Republic: “Proposition 203 would legalize marijuana for medicinal use.”

Phoenix Business Journal: “Arizona’s Proposition 203, which would legalize marijuana for medical use.”

It’s as if the opposing argument didn’t even exist.

What should they have said? How about, “Supporters of Prop 203 say it would allow the use of the drug only for serious illnesses including cancer, while opponents cite evidence from other states and say almost all the marijuana would go to drug abuse.” That would be telling both sides.

The name of their campaign was fraudulent. But the press wasn't interested.

Patients aren’t being arrested. The name of their campaign was fraudulent. But the press wasn’t interested.

Also, reporters appeared to accept everything the marijuana lobby said. The Marijuana Policy Project called its Arizona campaign, “Stop Arresting Patients.” So in a live debate, I asked their lobbyist to name one genuine medical patient in jail or prison. He couldn’t. That’s because there aren’t any. Patients aren’t being arrested; the very name of their campaign was dishonest. But why didn’t reporters ask that question?

Lastly, reporters seemed unwilling to ever speak ill of marijuana. In its September 2010 newsletter, the Glaucoma Foundation warned patients against using pot because it could make their glaucoma worse. That warning should have been newsworthy; the ballot measure listed glaucoma as a condition that can be treated with marijuana. So Keep AZ Drug Free, the only registered opposition group, sent a press release to every media outlet in the state. Not one reported it.

Three months after Arizona’s program kicked in, I wrote a guest op-ed for the Arizona Republicwith evidence that the opposition was right. Ninety percent of Arizona’s marijuana patients claimed pain, but were three-fourths male. That’s statistically impossible; pain patients are mostly female. But if our marijuana cardholders are really drug abusers who are faking or exaggerating their illnesses, it fits perfectly, because adult cannabis abusers are three-fourths male

Reporters should have been interested in evidence that the pot was going almost entirely to recreational use, but no one contacted me. Two reporters who were doing sympathetic stories about people helped by marijuana did call. They wanted my comments to give the appearance of balance. But neither one would report on the people faking illness to get “medical” marijuana; they would only write positive stories about pot. So there is no balance.

Proposition 203 squeaked by with 50.1 percent of the vote, and media bias clearly tipped the scales. By emphasizing pro-marijuana arguments and downplaying opposing ones, reporters inappropriately influenced public opinion. When I asked one reporter why his colleagues were so one-sided about marijuana, he said they probably believe pot should be legal. Maybe they do, but their allegiance to marijuana shouldn’t override their professional ethics. They’re journalists, not cheerleaders, and their job is to inform voters, not decide for them.

A shorter version of this commentary appeared in the Arizona Capitol Times on 24 May 2013.

Deadly behind the wheel

Not as bad as alcohol is hardly a selling point, nor is it much consolation

The research on stoned driving and the reports from states with medical marijuana laws make it clear, when it comes to driving, marijuana poses all the same problems that alcohol does.

Marijuana is the culprit in one-third of Montana's DUI traffic fatalities. If more people smoke pot, it could even overtake alcohol.

Marijuana is the culprit in one-third of Montana’s DUI traffic fatalities. If more people smoke pot, it could even overtake alcohol.

A research study by the University of Auckland compared a random sample of drivers with people who had either been killed or hospitalized by car accidents. Regular and heavy pot-smokers were 9.5 times more likely to get into a serious accident as non-users. Another study looked at patients in a hospital trauma unit who had been in car or motorcycle accidents. Fifteen percent had been using marijuana alone and an additional 17 percent had both THC and alcohol in their blood streams.  A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine looked only at impaired drivers who were not using alcohol. They found that 45 percent of people stopped for reckless driving tested positive for marijuana.  A significant percent of impaired drivers and serious accidents, including fatal accidents, are caused by marijuana.

Part of the problem is that so many people drive stoned. One study found that 16 percent of adolescents drove within one hour after smoking pot. Also, while there’s been a huge education campaign against drunk driving, the pro-marijuana groups often insist thatmarijuana makes people safer drivers.

Marijuana advocates often insist that marijuana never killed anyone. One look at the stoned driving statistics should make it clear that’s not true. They also frequently argue that marijuana is safer than alcohol. But judging by these statistics, it’s possible that the main reason alcohol kills more people on the highway is because it is more widely available. Laws that make marijuana more widely available could even the gap between the two drugs.

In fact, that has happened. When Montana first passed its law, very few people were prescribed, or recommended, medical marijuana. Then marijuana caravans began criss-crossing the state, bringing with them pot doctors who made all their money handing out marijuana cards. In less than a year, the number of “medical marijuana” users increased 5-fold. And shortly after that, according to Montana narcotics chief Mark Long, marijuana DUIs skyrocketed as did the number of fatal car accidents where one of the drivers had marijuana in his blood stream. In two years, the number of fatal car accidents caused by marijuana increased 25 percent. In Montana, marijuana now causes half as many traffic fatalities as alcohol, and the gap is narrowing.

In California, the number of fatal car crashes caused by marijuana doubled in the five years after they passed their medical marijuana law. Marijuana is just as deadly behind the wheel as alcohol, and if marijuana use increases it could overtake alcohol as the deadliest drug on the road.MM-fatally injured

How media outlets do the marijuana lobby’s bidding

By repeating pot lobby talking points without fact-checking

One way reporters slant the news is by taking pro-marijuana talking points and framing whole stories around them–even when they’re untrue. For example, the marijuana lobby says “medical” marijuana is just for serious illnesses like cancer, so reporters find pot-smoking cancer patients to write about. And ignore the fact that in Colorado and Oregon, only 3- 4 percent of the patients get their pot for cancer, while 94 percent claim pain.

Here’s another example of journalistic compliance, although with a different talking point.

On June 29, 2012 the Hartford Courant ran a report about Connecticut’s new “medical” marijuana law with the sub-headline “Tight restrictions assured.” But the assurance came only from pro-marijuana sources. Several people were quoted, all saying that unlike other state laws, Connecticut’s would be tightly regulated. But look who they were:

The story started with unnamed “national experts,” who said that Connecticut’s marijuana law would be “very tightly regulated–unlike in California and Colorado.”

Then came spokespeople from three pro-marijuana organizations—NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), the Marijuana Policy Project, and the Drug Policy Alliance. Not surprisingly, they all liked the law. The NORML director expressed hopes that it would be “the absolute model for the nation. I don’t want it to be like in other states…”

These supporters obviously wanted to push back against news from other medical marijuana states that these laws are mostly conduits for drug abuse. And the Courant obliged.

Tightly regulated?

Tightly regulated?

The article even quoted a businessman who sold marijuana vending machines. “Connecticut really wants to make this the tightest, most regulated state possible,” he declared, repeating the same talking point while hawking a device that makes pot available 24 hours a day.

National media was no better. About Connecticut’s law,Reuters wrote, “The new law puts in place restrictions to prevent the kind of abuse that has plagued some of the 16 other states and the District of Columbia where pot is legal for medical use.”

Reuters didn’t attribute this to anyone and didn’t balance it with any statement from the opposition; they took a pro-marijuana talking point and presented it as fact. The Reuters article did describe several restrictions in Connecticut’s law; however, all but one can be found in other state laws, and none of them prevent drug abuse.

Neither the Courant nor Reuters mentioned opposition to the law. Had they contacted opponents, they might have learned that marijuana advocates are like teenage Casanovas on the prowl; they tell every state their law will be different.

The marijuana lobby promised Arizona their law would protect against the abuses happening everywhere else.  “This is not California’s law. This is not Colorado’s law, by a long shot,” state legislator Matt Heinz said at the time. “Providers can’t be just a ‘doc in the box.’”

Pot docs who advertise

Pot docs who advertise

It turns out that wasn’t true. Three years later, Arizona now has pot docs who advertise, and just 24 of these docs have written three-fourths of all the recommendations for the state’s 33,000 marijuana cardholders, 90 percent of whom get their pot for pain. It’s no different from California or Colorado.

In Maryland, the bill’s sponsor, made the same promise. The Huffington Post wrote, “If the bill passes, Morhaim said, it will be the ‘tightest and most controlled’ medical marijuana program of any state’s.”

Not to be outdone, the Illinois State Senate approved “medical” marijuana, and the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Bill Haine of Alton, said, “It’s the tightest, most controlled legislative initiative in the United State related to medical cannabis.” According to Fox News, their plan was called “the strictest in the nation.”

In Massachusetts, proponents also made specific comparisons to California and Colorado to sell their proposal as the tightest, safest medical marijuana law in the country.

There are a few issues here. First of all, they can’t all be the strictest in the nation; that’s not how superlatives work. Second, whoever developed this “tightest, most regulated” talking point is just plain brilliant. Imagine the skill it takes to sell an addictive drug to a nation with a drug problem.

But thirdly, and most important, the talking point isn’t true. These laws are no more restrictive than their predecessors. According to Dave Evans, special legal advisor to Drug Free America, Connecticut’s law has loopholes similar to those found in other state laws, and these loopholes will also allow recreational users to game the system.

In other words, the pot lobby that helped write all these laws added a few touches and claimed they made the laws more restrictive, but they don’t. It’s just part of the deception.

So these state legislators promising the tightest regulations in the nation are repeating a marijuana lobby talking point that isn’t true. We expect that from politicians, but then we expect the news media to expose the dishonesty. Instead, they’ve endorsed it.

Reuters and the Courant didn’t just get it wrong, they got it 180 degrees wrong. That’s hardly surprising. Reporters who don’t interview the opposition never get the true story. And neither do their readers.

Between Reuters and the Hartford Courant, there are four types of bias:

1) Framing. In both cases, the story is about tight restrictions. Even if they had included strong opposition statements, what people see is what leads—our law will be very tightly regulated.

2) Weak or no opposition. Many pro-marijuana stories interview opponents, but only print their weakest comments. The Courant used a different technique; they interviewed someone who wasn’t opposed to the law, just opposed to one thing one person said. After mentioning the vending machine salesman, the article went on to say, “the governor’s top criminal justice adviser said the machine had no place in the state’s vision for marijuana dispensing.” But people like Dave Evans who could tell you the law won’t be restrictive at all—they aren’t heard from at all.

This time will be different. We promise.

This time will be different. We promise.

3) Not asking obvious follow-ups. The idea of “medical” marijuana didn’t come from doctors or groups representing patients. It was invented by the Marijuana Policy Project and NORML. Those two groups are behind every “medical” marijuana law in the country–including California’s and Colorado’s. So when representatives of these groups say some new law won’t be like the loose laws in other states, why don’t reporters ask, “If those other laws, which you helped pass, are so bad, why aren’t you trying to fix them so they’re more restrictive, too?”

4) Quoting talking points as fact. Suppose Reuters had only interviewed opponents of Connecticut’s law, and had written: “The new law is full of the kind of loopholes that will allow the rampant drug abuse masquerading as medical care that has plagued the 16 other states and the District of Columbia where pot is legal for so-called “medical” use.” Would that have been outrageously slanted and one-sided? Sure. But no more so than what they did print. And at least this version would have the advantage of being right.

This entry was originally posted on June 9, 2013.

Crunching the numbers; why I say almost all medical marijuana patients are faking it

The evidence that so-called “medical” marijuana laws are almost entirely a front for drug abuse

Originally posted on November 15, 2012

I’ve been asked a few times to explain why I say almost every one of the marijuana cardholders in Arizona is probably a substance abuser faking their illness just to get the pot.

Pain patients are about 55 percent female in one study, and the others just came up with mostly female. That’s close to 50 percent, so let’s just say pain patient should be 50:50 male: female. Then it is like a coin toss. If you toss a coin 100 times, about 50 times it should be heads. If you toss it 100 times and get heads 75 times, something is very wrong.

Now suppose there is a coin that actually does come up heads 75 percent of the time. If you toss it 100 times, you should get heads 75 times.

So now suppose you have a whole pile of 1000 coins. Some of them are the normal ones and some are the ones that come up heads 75 percent of the time. And you want to figure out how many are the normal coins and how many are the 75 percent heads coins.

You can’t tell which an individual coin is by tossing it, but if you toss them all you will have a good idea. If you toss them all and get heads 50 percent of the time, then they are all normal coins. If you toss them all and get heads 75 percent of the time, then they are all the 75 percent coins. If you toss them all and get heads 62.5 percent of the time, then half the coins are normal and half are the 75 percent heads coins.

Well, that is almost exactly our situation. The medical marijuana patients are almost all claiming pain. If they really have pain and only want marijuana for their pain, then a little over 50 percent will be female, or around 45 percent will be male. But adult pot-smokers are 74 percent male, so if they are all just pot-smokers who are faking pain to get weed, then they will be 74 percent male. And if some are genuine and some are faking, then the percent of males will be somewhere between 50 and 74.

Well, in Arizona, 73 percent are male. That means that probably they are just about all faking it.

In Colorado, 68 percent are male. That is 6 away from 74, but 23 away from 45. (24 away from 45 is easier to use, so let’s use that.) If we were doing our coin toss, then 80 percent would be the mostly heads coins and 20 percent the regular coins. But in our case, 68 percent is the number you’d get if 80 percent were faking it and 20 percent really had pain.

That’s why I say most of them are probably faking it.

If you go look at the Arizona DHS website and look at their marijuana statistics, you will see a graph showing that almost all the young people getting medial marijuana are male. As you get older, the numbers come closer together. That graph alone tells you that most of the young people with marijuana cards are doing it to get high, not for any medical reason.

Why is pro-marijuana journalism so inaccurate?

A plethora of pro-marijuana news, opinion–and error

I read the New York Times and the Washington Post every day. And the past month, there’s been a mini tsunami of pro-legalization articles and opinions in these two papers. In fact, there’s been so much, it appears to be orchestrated.

On May 19, Bill Keller wrote “How to Legalize Pot”, which included the inaccurate statement “states with medical marijuana programs … have not experienced an increase in use by teenagers.” Keller then supported the inaccurate statement with a link to a study that was posted on the internet unpublished and without peer review. The study depends on a complicated statistical analysis that’s beyond most people’s understanding and could be completely wrong, so without peer review it has no more validity than any other random posting on the internet. Meanwhile, there are published,peer-reviewed studies showing that marijuana use, including teenage marijuana use, is significantly higher in states with medical marijuana laws. Keller ignored those studies.

(Pro-Com.org) Thru 2007, teen use decreased nationwide, but by much less in “medical” marijuana states. If that’s what Keller means by no evidence of increase, then he is misleading his readers. Besides, since 2008, teen pot use has increased everywhere–especially in “medical” marijuana states–making his statement wrong.

(Pro-Com.org)
Thru 2007, teen use decreased nationwide, but by much less in “medical” marijuana states. If that’s what Keller means by no evidence of increase, then he is misleading his readers. Besides, since 2008, teen pot use has increased everywhere–especially in “medical” marijuana states–making his statement wrong.

Three days later, the Times ran “How can marijuana be sold safely?” They invited six experts to opine; only one was opposed to legalization. In another, Michelle Alexander incorrectly states that, “millions … have been arrested, jailed and branded criminals simply because they were caught with the drug.”

The federal government got tired of this accusation and published “Who’s Really in Prison for Marijuana?” Almost everyone in federal prison for marijuana had more serious prior offenses, pleaded down from a more serious charge or was caught with large amounts—the median being 115 pounds. The numbers are similar in state prison and I’ve seen no evidence that it’s different in county jails.

For the most part, police are not looking for marijuana. Yes, New York City’s stop and frisk program has stopped hundreds of thousands in a way that targets black neighborhoods, and last year, 5,307 of them were found with marijuana. But the claim that millions have been jailed and convicted whose only crime was possession for personal use is not true.

The marijuana lobby perpetuates this myth because it’s their rationale for legalizing the drug. Besides being untrue, it presents a false choice between rounding up millions or legalization. There are other options.

On June 7, the Washington Post ran a pro-pot op-ed called “Five myths about legalized marijuana.”  It had so many factual errors that Kevin Sabet, in his response published in the Huffington Post, limited himself to the five most serious ones.

Dr. Sabet says the Washington Post has run an equal number of pro- and anti-marijuana opinions. But over the past year I’ve counted five in favor, and only one mildly against. Besides the “five myths” one this week and the one by Rauch Sabet mentions, there was vanden Heuvel’s “Time to End the War on Drugs,” one by Rob Kampia, the director of the Marijuana Policy Project, and one from a year ago I can’t find online claiming that pro-marijuana politicians win elections.

These were also inaccurate in ways good newspapers should never permit. Kampia pretended that medical marijuana laws are only about people with cancer, AIDS and multiple sclerosis–ignoring states like ArizonaOregon and Colorado where these serious illnesses rank in the single digits while over 90 percent of the marijuana patients get their pot for pain. Vanden Heuvel claimed legalizing pot would “drastically decrease incarceration rates” even though nearly all the pot-smokers in prison are there for other crimes, whereas marijuana possession itself accounts for fewer than one percent of inmates.

(The Daily Beast) Legalizing pot would “drastically” reduce the number of prison inmates — by 1.4 percent. Marijuana possession itself is only 0.3 percent, not the millions the pot lobby claims–a false claim that’s been repeated so often, even by reputable newspapers, many now believe it.

(The Daily Beast) Legalizing pot would “drastically” reduce the number of prison inmates — by 1.4 percent. Marijuana possession itself is only 0.3 percent, not the millions the pot lobby claims–a false claim that’s been repeated so often, even by reputable newspapers, many now believe it.

Then a week ago, the ACLU released a study showing blacks are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than whites, even though the two races smoke pot at the same rate. It would be shocking were it not so misleading.

There are three reasons this report is far less meaningful than the ACLU would have us believe:  1. Police don’t target pot-smokers, and usually only find marijuana incidentally while searching someone who’s been arrested or stopped for an entirely different reason. 2. African-Americans are arrested for almost all crimes at much higher rates than whites. I’m not saying it’s fair–in fact, I’m sure that it isn’t. Blacks, whites and hispanics are not inherently different, so if blacks are arrested for anything at higher rates, there is either something wrong with our criminal justice system or something wrong with our culture and our society. However, despite the unfairness, blacks are arrested for violent crime at nearly four times the rate for whites, and property crime at nearly three times the rate. 3. A study released last month by the drug czar’s office found half of all criminals tested positive for marijuana at the time of their arrest. Those of us who work with addicts know that they carry their drugs everywhere, even when they commit a crime. I have no numbers on this one, but if half of all people arrested for violent and property crime have been smoking pot recently enough that it’s found on a drug screen, then an awful lot of them are probably carrying marijuana and getting busted with it.

For Violent Crime – 4 times the arrest rate.                 from Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention

For Violent Crime – 4 times the arrest rate.
(Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention)

So the reason African-Americans are arrested for pot at nearly four times the rate of whites is probably not because police target them for marijuana. It’s most likely an artifact of the very real fact that blacks are arrested for non-drug crimes at much higher rates than whites, and criminals have a very high rate of marijuana use and possession. The point is this is not a problem specific to marijuana. African-Americans are probably not being singled out for marijuana arrests; most of the pot is probably found incidentally when they are searched for other reasons, like being arrested for a non-drug crime.

Of course, that didn’t stop newspapers across the country from running this story as a slam on marijuana laws. It didn’t stop the New York Times from saying incorrectly (as its headline) “Blacks Are Singled Out for Marijuana Arrests.” And It didn’t stop the NY Times or Washington Post from using the articles to discuss legalization.

That raises a question: why would legalization of pot be the solution? African Americans are disproportionately imprisoned for violent crimes, and no one suggests legalizing those. Are these two newspapers and the ACLU so pro-legalization that they’ll bring it up even when it’s not germane?

In fact, it raises two questions reporters have not asked:

This story ran in 193 news outlets, but did any of them get it right?

This story ran in 193 news outlets, but did any of them get it right?

Why is the ACLU targeting only marijuana arrests when the real issue is that African-Americans are arrested at higher rates for nearly all crimes? And, why is the ACLU using this disparity to discuss legalization of marijuana when legalization is not their proposed solution to any other crime that blacks are arrested for at much higher rates than whites?

Here’s one possible answer to those two questions: What’s not in these news reports and should be is the $15 million pro-marijuana billionaire Peter Lewis gave to the ACLU.

If a group that got money from the Koch brothers or from the oil and gas industry came out with a study questioning global warming, their funding source would surely be part of the story. Why does marijuana get special treatment?

This big donation from a pro-marijuana benefactor might explain why the ACLU has invested so much time and money trying to make marijuana the focus when the real problem is that African-Americans are arrested at much higher rates for nearly all crimes. It makes the ACLU seem to be more interested in promoting marijuana than in exposing racial injustice.

Back to the main point of this post: There have been so many pro-legalization stories and opinions written recently that a friend of mine, who is pro-legalization himself, likened it to the run-up to the Iraq War. Also, the articles have a remarkable number of factual errors. And not tiny errors, but factual inaccuracies in the main point the writer is making. Why is this happening?

One explanation is that a lot of news people are so passionately convinced that marijuana should be legal that they’ve developed the same hubristic certainty found among politically active pot-smokers. When people are that undoubting about the rightness of their cause, fairness and commitment to accuracy can give way. “Reefer madness” is surely a misnomer, but “legalization madness” might be very real, and afflicting a lot of the nation’s journalists.

But during the same week, only one news outlet covered this story

During the same week, only one news outlet covered this story

Here’s some more evidence of journalistic bias: One recent marijuana story that did not show up in the New York Times or Washington Post–according to Google news it appeared only in USA Today–was a study of college students by the University of Maryland. This ten-year study “found that substance use, ‘especially marijuana use,’ contributed to ‘college students skipping more classes, spending less time studying, earning lower grades, dropping out of college, and being unemployed after college.’”

This is an important story. One of the main arguments against legalization is that teens who smoke pot regularly spend less time on homework, get worse grades, drop out at twice the rate of non-users, and have more career problems as adults. Now we know college-age pot-smokers have the same problems.

This study is as significant as the ACLU study claims to be; plus, it’s not at all misleading. But the ACLU study made it into nearly every paper in the country. The effects of college marijuana use study showed up in one.

There was one more recent news story that was only in the Washington Post—E.J. Dionne’s report on the politics of marijuana. He found that public acceptance of marijuana has increased significantly over the past ten years, but he can’t say why.

I can. Take a look at how pro-marijuana the press has been. They’re so busy writing opinion pieces about why pot should be legal they don’t have time to do a news story about one of the main ways marijuana hurts users. Or else they’re just unwilling to print a negative story about pot. Either way, the plethora of pro-marijuana news and opinion, and the failure to report on the harm pot does to high school and college kids, probably plays a big role in shaping public opinion. And the willingness of my two favorite newspapers to tolerate so many errors in the cause of promoting marijuana is evidence that they’ve lost their bearings on this issue.

This entry was originally posted on June 11, 2013.

More teenagers smoke pot in states with “medical” marijuana laws

There is no way to make a drug legal for adults without teen use increasing as well.

Research shows that teenagers who smoke pot frequently have difficulty with  memoryattention and problem-solvingfind it harder to learnget lower grades, and are less likely to finish high school or college. Once they’ve finished or left school, they have higher job turnoverless satisfying careers and earn less money than non-pot-smoking peers. No parent wants this for their children. Medical marijuana laws increase teenage marijuana use, so all these problems become more common.
By 2006, 20 percent more teenagers were smoking pot in medical marijuana states (ProCon.org) By 2008 the difference was 30 percent. (SAMHSA)

By 2006, 20 percent more teenagers were smoking pot in medical marijuana states (ProCon.org) By 2008 the difference was 30 percent. (SAMHSA)

Most teens are actually pretty smart about drugs, using the ones they consider to be safe and avoiding the ones they believe to be harmful. That’s why cigarette smoking and binge drinking have decreased sharply among teens.  Teenage marijuana use also showed an overall decrease between 1999 and 2006 as teens recognized the very real problems it can cause. But the decrease has been far less in states with medical marijuana laws. In medical marijuana states, teen use dropped by 5 percent in 7 years, whereas in non-medical marijuana states it dropped 14 percent.

By the way, some pro-marijuana advocates use only half this statistic, pointing out that teenage marijuana use is decreasing in medical marijuana states and claiming that proves medical marijuana laws don’t increase teen pot use. What they’re not mentioning is that teen marijuana use has decreased everywhere, and is decreasing three times as fast in states without medical marijuana laws.

MM-Teen 1

If teens know the problems pot can cause, they are less likely to use it.

In a 2006 ranking of states based on the percentage of teens who used marijuana over the past month, medical marijuana states came out on top.  The 3 states with the highest rates of teen pot use were all states with medical marijuana laws. At the time there were only ten states with medical marijuana laws, but half of the top ten were medical marijuana states. Maine went from 28th to first in the nation in just a few years after passing a medical marijuana law.

Between 1999 and 2006, teenage pot use was 20 percent higher in medical marijuana states. But in 2007-2008 the gap increased to 30 percent, and the downward trend in teen marijuana use bottomed out, especially in states with medical marijuana laws. This is all from the SAMHSA National Household Drug Use Survey. In 2009, teenage marijuana use increased, and most likely teenage marijuana use is increasing in states with medical marijuana laws and decreasing in states without these laws.

Marijuana vending machines in California send the message that pot is as harmless as candy

Marijuana vending machines in California send the message that pot is as harmless as candy

One reason teenagers smoke more pot in states with medical marijuana laws is that they begin to see pot as a benign medication for everyday aches and pains rather than as a harmful, addictive drug.  Also, medical marijuana laws, especially loosely-written ones like Prop 203, make marijuana more available for everyone. In an NPR story earlier this year, teenagers in California were quoted saying marijuana is always available, either from dispensaries or from friends who have medical marijuana cards. When a drug is more available and seen as safe, more people use it, especially teens.

Parents should know that one of the main results if this proposition becomes law is that their children are much more likely to have friends who smoke pot and more likely to smoke pot themselves. And if they do smoke pot, they will probably start at an earlier age and smoke it more often.

Medical marijuana laws also teach kids dishonesty. When they see drug abusers and doctors gaming the system, and getting away with it, they think that’s what normal people do.

Originally posted in 2010.

Treating readers fairly

Slate sides with stoner

Here’s an idea that’s not new with me: Opinion columnists should use accurate facts and straightforward arguments. Their job, after all, is to enlighten and inform, not mislead or manipulate. The former is healthy debate; the latter is propaganda.

As shown in the last post, a lot of good journalists cross this line when making pro-marijuana arguments, and here’s one more example, from the online magazine Slate.

Last month, Gil Kerlikowske, the head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the drug czar, released the annual results of the Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring Program (ADAM). It looks at adult males arrested in five cities and this year the media picked up on three points.

Nearly fifty percent of all criminals–including those who committed violent and property crimes– have recently used marijuana

Nearly fifty percent of all criminals–including those who committed violent and property crimes– have recently used marijuana

Between 62 percent (Atlanta) and 86 percent (Chicago) of all adult male criminals tested positive for illegal drugs at the time of arrest.

The most commonly found illegal drug was marijuana. In three cities—Chicago, New York and Sacramento—marijuana metabolites are now found in the urine of over 50 percent of adult male arrestees.

And thirdly, very few of these drug-abusing criminals had received treatment at any time in their lives.

ADAM is an annual survey that reminds the country crime is basically a substance abuse problem and we should be providing more treatment.

But the marijuana lobby took offense. Pot-smokers and the lobbying organizations that represent them often insist that marijuana is not a drug, that it is not addictive, and that using it should not be considered a disorder needing treatment. I personally (and professionally) think this is just denial; when my patients get clean and sober and serious about recovery, they laugh at the marijuana-can-do-no-wrong beliefs they once held.

Anyway, this was part of the McClatchy news report:

“The drug czar should be ashamed of himself for attempting to deceive the American people in this manner,” said Steve Fox, the national political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, a pro-legalization group in Washington. “We could release a study tomorrow showing that 98 percent of arrestees in the United States drank water in the 48 hours before they engaged in criminal behavior. Does that mean that water causes crime? Fortunately, the American people are smarter than the drug czar thinks they are.”

 Next time, call the experts on addiction


Next time, call the experts on addiction

First of all, why did McClatchy’s reporter feel compelled to contact a pro-marijuana lobbying group for comments? The report is about substance abuse and the need for treatment. Why not contact an organization of addiction professionals? As an addiction psychiatrist, I would have criticized the study, but very differently: “Why didn’t they also screen for alcohol?” I’d ask. “We want to know how much crime involves substance abuse, not just illegal substance abuse.”

But reporters very rarely contact addiction professionals for a story about addiction. Instead, they contact pro-legalization groups. It’s a very strange bias.

Secondly, Fox’s response was dishonest. He accused the drug czar of saying something he didn’t say, and then countered with a phony analogy. Kerlikowske never said that pot causes crime. He said it is linked to crime, which it is.

Fox’s false analogy was comparing marijuana use to drinking water. Let me say the obvious: any group of people–kids in first grade, x-ray technicians, people who play Sudoku on the web—all probably drank water in the past 48 hours. However, I know of no other group of people that has a 50 percent rate of smoking pot in the last 48 hours. Not even college students. The fact that 50 percent of adult male criminals used marijuana shortly before getting arrested is significant.

Of course, we expect lobbyists and spokespeople to use high dudgeon, straw man arguments and irrelevant analogies. They’re not interested in the truth, just in protecting their clients.

Journalists should be held to a higher standard. However, the day after Kerlikowske spoke, Slate published an article by its crime reporter Justin Peters in which he repeated the marijuana lobby arguments, even using the same offended, accusatory tone. Actually, Peters went even further.

His headline,  “New Study Tries, Fails to Show Marijuana Use Is Linked to Crime,” was factually wrong. The study clearly showed marijuana use and crime are linked. Fifty percent of adult male criminals tested positive for pot. Can Peters name any other group of people, other than heavy pot-smokers, who test out at that high a rate?

50% wear pants, but I doubt they smoke pot

50% wear pants, but I doubt they smoke pot

Peters also expanded on the false analogy, writing, “Here are other things that over half of the adult male arrestees probably had in common: pants, food in their stomachs, a mother who loves them, an impoverished background, an affinity for one or more of the local sports teams.” It’s a false analogy because, except for the impoverished background, Peters is naming things that apply to almost everybody, whereas marijuana use is far less common. And while hundreds of groupings we could name wear pants and have food in their stomachs, I know of no other group that has a 50 percent rate of recent marijuana use.

Peters also sets up a straw man. “..correlation is not causation,” he says, and then attacks the lack of evidence for causation. The reason it’s a straw man argument is that no one ever claimed causation.

In the last paragraph, Peters admits that Kerlikowske never claimed pot caused crime, and admits that the drug czar only said they were linked, which Peters doesn’t dispute. In other words, Peters admits that his headline is untrue. Justin Peters is not a stupid man, and he’s not actually a terrible journalist. But he knows full well that more people read the headline than the last paragraph.

By making a false statement (his headline), and by using dishonest debating techniques (false analogy and straw man argument), Peters used his position as a national journalist to distract and deceive rather than to inform and enlighten.

This entry was originally posted on June 16, 2013.