USA Today's Self-Refuting Anti-Pot Propaganda


Rita Rubin's marijuana scare story in yesterday's USA Today begins and ends, predictably enough, with cautionary tales about young people for whom that first puff of pot was the beginning of a downward spiral toward addiction, academic failure, heroin, legal trouble, and out-of-wedlock childbearing. "You never know where it's going to lead you," advises one. "You don't know that you're not going to become an addict, so it's not worth the risk."

By the same logic, you should never drink (you might become an alcoholic), eat ice cream (you might become obese), go shopping (you might spend all your money and go into debt), go swimming (you might drown), or cross the street (you might be hit by a car). Although you would not know it from Rubin's article, the existence of risk is not the only relevant consideration; its magnitude matters too. In the case of marijuana, the likelihood of addiction, to judge by the government's own data on patterns of use, is quite low. And that's assuming addiction is a completely random occurrence, as opposed to a pattern of behavior that depends on context, choice, and personality as well as pharmacology.

Rubin's mission—to scare people about a drug they probably think is no big deal—is clear from the headline: "Caution: Marijuana May Not Be Lesser Evil." Compared to what? Alcohol? Heroin? Xanax? Crossword puzzles? The story never says.

Rubin tries the usual tricks, presenting extreme examples as typical, conflating short-term and long-term effects, presenting correlations as if they prove cause and effect, cherry-picking statistics, and hyping increased potency. But caveats keep creeping in. Consider her discussion of marijuana as a "gateway drug," which is unusually sophisticated for a story of this kind:

"Is marijuana a gateway drug? That question has been debated since the time I was in college in the 1960s and is still being debated today," says Harvard University psychiatrist Harrison Pope, director of the Biological Psychiatry Laboratory at Boston's McLean Hospital. "There's just no way scientifically to end that argument one way or the other."

That's because it's impossible to separate marijuana from the environment in which it is smoked, short of randomly assigning people to either smoke pot or abstain—a trial that would be grossly unethical to conduct.

"I would bet you that people who start smoking marijuana earlier are more likely to get into using other drugs," Pope says. Perhaps people who are predisposed to using a variety of drugs start smoking marijuana earlier than others do, he says.

Besides alcohol, often the first drug adolescents abuse, marijuana may simply be the most accessible and least scary choice for a novice susceptible to drug addiction, says Virginia Tech psychologist Bob Stephens.

Even after pointing out the importance of distinguishing between correlation and causation, Rubin quotes, without qualification, another psychiatrist who fails to do so:

All of the studies clearly show the earlier someone starts taking marijuana, the greater their vulnerability to addiction disorders and psychiatric disorders. I'm so shocked still that so many parents are not considering enough the dangers of early drug use.

But Rubin is careful again when Norah Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, claims marijuana is more "toxic" today because it's seven times as potent as it was in the 1970s. Rubin immediately quotes Stephens, who casts doubt on the magnitude of the increase in average THC content and notes that people tend to smoke less when the pot is stronger (which, pace Volkow, makes marijuana use less toxic, since the main health hazard comes from the combustion products, not the THC). It's encouraging that a reporter who clearly was assigned to write an article about how dangerous marijuana is felt constrained, whether by readers' pre-existing knowledge, her sources' comments, or her own conscience, to undermine the paper's propaganda.

[Thanks to NORML's Allen St. Pierre for the tip.]