Why are New York Times Reporters So Dumb About Cannabis?

The movement to legalize marijuana, the country’s most popular illicit drug, will take a giant leap on Election Day if California and four other states vote to allow recreational cannabis, as polls suggest they may.    – “Election May Be a Turning Point for Legal Marijuana,” The New York Times, Oct 24, 2016

The headline above Thomas Fuller’s page-one piece in yesterday’s New York Times offered hope to legalization advocates, but the article itself ended up being poorly reported on so many levels that it left me nothing but frustrated and grouchy. Here we are, four years into the legal era in Colorado and Washington; on the verge of legalizing recreational marijuana in California, Massachusetts, Arizona, Nevada and Maine; and all Fuller can do is recycle all the well-worn and disproven clichés about cannabis. I don’t understand how the Times could allow such piffle through, especially when the paper’s editorial page has famously—for more than two years now—embraced and argued strongly for nationwide legalization.

Fuller’s piece opens with a few innocuous graphs on the current races in the five states considering adult-use legalization. Then we tumble quickly into the old Drug War standbys: a roll of the dice, a risky experiment, a hint of economic folly:

[Scholars] who have studied these legalization measures say that to a large extent they are very much a shot in the dark, a vast public health experiment that could involve states that hold 23 percent of the United States population — and generate a quarter of the country’s economic output — carried out with relatively little scientific research on the risks.

What I find odd is that the prohibitionists, mostly law enforcement officials and a few researchers, fail to notice that approximately 80 million Americans have used cannabis for the last 60 years and none of the harmful effects they have forever been predicting have in fact occurred.

Brave New <strong>Weed</strong>Fuller and the Times also ignore the millions of people who now use cannabis medically, especially those of a certain age. I spent the past four years researching my book Brave New Weed: Adventures into the Uncharted World of Cannabis, and now I’m talking with readers in bookstores and event centers. Everywhere I go, people over 40 want to know about new products for pain, arthritis, stiffness, migraines, MS, Parkinson’s—all illnesses for which cannabis has been proven effective.

In a classic journalistic fallacy, Fuller allows his sources to make scientific claims without actually investigating the validity of those claims:

Stanton Glantz, a professor at the School of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, says marijuana regulations, which were formulated like laws for alcohol, should instead be modeled after the measures passed in recent decades that discourage tobacco use. Cigarette smoke and marijuana smoke have similar harmful chemical profiles, he said.

What Glantz says there, in case you missed the words between the lines, is that marijuana smoke causes cancer, just like tobacco smoke. And the Times allowed him to make the claim, then walk away. In fact, this is an issue that’s been the subject of many, many studies. You can read some of them here, here, and here.

Raising fears dispelled by data

The greatest fear raised by these cancer alarms is, of course, lung cancer. But there are a number of studies that find absolutely no correlation between marijuana smoking and lung cancer. To get to the bottom of this, I interviewed Dr. Donald Tashkin, Director of the Pulmonary Function Laboratories at the University of California, Los Angeles. He’s been studying the subject for more than three decades. He told me in no uncertain terms that there have never been any findings that cannabis harms lung tissue the way tobacco does. He suspects it’s because cannabis has such strong anti-inflammatory properties.

“A number of studies” the Times reports, “warn that marijuana’s harmful effects—especially on adolescent development, to the cardiovascular system and to fetuses—have been understated.”

What studies? What understatement? For more than 40 years, the National Institute on Drug Abuse has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into studies intended to find the farthest reaches of harm caused by cannabis, while suppressing nearly all research aimed at investigating the healing potential of medical marijuana. And yet somehow the harm has been…understated?

The claim of harm to fetuses is a powerful one. And yet it, too, has little scientific basis. Melanie Derher’s work studying Jamaican children, published a quarter-century ago, showed “no significant differences in developmental testing outcomes between children of marijuana-using and non-marijuana using mothers except at 30 days of age when the babies of users had more favourable scores on two clusters of the Brazelton Scales: autonomic stability and reflexes.”

More recently, a review of 31 studies conducted between 1982 and 2015 found that cannabis posed no significant risks to specific concerns about birth weight and preterm delivery.

To be clear, I don’t think anyone charged with caring for other people—drivers, pilots, doctors, caregivers—should work under the influence of any substance. Well-crafted laws should take care of that, as they seem to be doing in Colorado. And yes, the number of ER visits in that state have increased, although the number of people directly killed by cannabis ingestion, worldwide, in history, remains zero. One effect of legalization is that more people will initially try things that had previously been prohibited. At the same time, data from Portugal and the Netherlands, which decriminalized cannabis many years ago, show that cannabis use levels off after a year or two. In fact, the Netherlands has the lowest rate of teen cannabis use of any country in Europe.

Perhaps, the Times might have noted, prohibition creates more desire than it eliminates.

Lead Image: Tomas Roggero/Flickr Creative Commons

Leave a Reply