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.

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