On May 5 newspapers and news broadcasts around the country carried alarming stories about a new study of marijuana, published in that day’s issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. “Stronger marijuana makes more addicted,” screamed the Los Angeles Daily News. “Abuse and dependence rise as pot becomes more potent,” the Seattle Post-Intelligencer headlined. Rising marijuana potency, the stories claimed, was leading more Americans to become addicted to the devil weed.
Small problem: the theory that more potent pot is getting people hooked is almost certainly wrong. But none of the newspaper stories gave the slightest hint that might be the case.
The government-funded study on which the stories were based, “Prevalence of Marijuana Use Disorders in the United States,” was conducted by scientists from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. It compared survey data from 1991 through 1992, and 2001 through 2002, indicating an increase in marijuana “abuse” or “dependence,” as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the American Psychiatric Association’s official diagnostic manual. The study’s authors hypothesized that the most likely cause for this increase is “increased marijuana potency.” As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution story, picked up by the Daily News, put it, “it’s not your parents’ marijuana.” Wire stories used by most other papers took roughly the same line, though in less shrill language.
None of these stories chose to mention a salient fact: the “potent pot” hypothesis is pure speculation. As Mitch Earleywine, University of Southern California associate professor of psychology and author of Understanding Marijuana (Oxford University Press, 2002), notes, there’s no scientific evidence that more potent marijuana leads to greater levels of dependence. Indeed the JAMA article makes no claim that any such evidence exists.
Second, as the JAMA article notes, under the manual’s criteria, people can be classified as marijuana “abusers” if they experience “legal problems related to marijuana use.” The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reports arrest tabulations show that marijuana arrests skyrocketed from about 300,000 in 1991 to well over 700,000 in 2001. What may be simply the results of shifting law enforcement priorities were presented in both the study and in news reports as the dire effects of “potent pot.” Strikingly, the JAMA article fails to identify which abuse-dependence criteria increased and by how much.
That alone should have led an inquisitive reporter or two to ask if there might be an alternative explanation to the “potent pot” theory. But the journalists covering the story failed to ask this most basic question even though the study contained a giant red flag: the increased “abuse” occurred almost entirely among young blacks and Hispanics. There was no similar increase among whites in the same age group.
Young blacks and Hispanics have no special access to high-potency marijuana, and there’s no evidence that THC affects black and Hispanic brains differently than those of whites. But people of color are well documented to be at disproportionate risk for arrest for drug crimes.
None of this was discussed in the Journal-Constitution story, or in the AP, Reuters, and Scripps-Howard wire stories that were reprinted across the country. Indeed, what’s striking about all these stories is their similarity to the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s press release. None of these esteemed newspapers or wire services chose to quote even a single expert or advocate skeptical of the government line. None of them seems to have considered the possibility that our government might spin the data in order to match its drug war policies.
That’s not journalism — it’s stenography.
(Bruce Mirken is a recovering journalist who, after years of covering health issues for Men’s Health, AIDS Treatment News, and the Bay Guardian, now serves as communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project).