Drug Policy

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.]

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  1. I always figured that folks, of all ages, try intoxicants beyond pot, in part, because the drug dealers offer them poly-drug alternatives when cops bust a big part of a supply in a community. whenever the government FORCES a market to find an alternative it does.

  2. It continues to confound the senses that it is, and has long been, perfectly legal (assuming you are of age) to smoke a manufactured stick that contains part plant and part virulent, addiction-CAUSING chemicals, but it is illegal (and to many, the next worse thing to selling your soul)to pick a bud growing on a plant, set it on fire, and inhale the smoke that flows from it.

  3. “…short of randomly assigning people to either smoke pot or abstain-a trial that would be grossly unethical to conduct.”

    Unethical or illegal? Or is there a difference anymore?

    Either way you’d probably have plenty of volunteers.

  4. The real question is whether or not USA Today got paid by the White House or some other dubious outfit to run this bit.

  5. “Either way you’d probably have plenty of volunteers.”

    Nope. I’m not going to volunteer to be part of the abstainer group. 😉

  6. Apparently, we’ve all been unethically assigned to the abstainer group. Although I don’t think that’s the point Rubin was trying to make.

  7. The real question is whether or not USA Today got paid by the White House or some other dubious outfit to run this bit.

    Big pharma. You don’t think all their pr budget goes to just one periodical, do ya?

  8. I can only thank Reason for adding the word “conflate” to my vocabulary.

  9. Harvard University psychiatrist Harrison Pope, director of the Biological Psychiatry Laboratory at Boston’s McLean Hospital.

    I can not believe that the intellectual elite in this town can be so cowardly. It is truly a fucking shame, and these people deserve to be stripped of their positions and forced to work a register at Best Buy. Do we understand why western science deos not understand the brain yet?

    I know ya’ll have heard about technological singularity, so you can probably understand how heavy this is. This was never published because of British libel laws. Did you know that Francis Crick was on LSD when he though up the structure of DNA?

    Nothing less than the foundation of modern biology, from a ingenious scientist given free access to LSD. That is why they don’t want us to smoke herb. The truth is that it is a gateway drug, but it is a gateway to thinking for yourself and rejecting CIA propaganda.

    While we’re posting drug propaganda…


  10. But studies have shown that when regular pot smokers quit, they do experience withdrawal symptoms, a characteristic used to predict addictiveness.

    Huh, no shit, just like the (lack of) caffiene headaches I get when I stop the Java drip. All withdrawl symptoms and addictiveness levels are not created equal. But we wouldn’t want to ruin a good scare story with facts like that now would we?

    Most users of more addictive drugs, such as cocaine or heroin, started with marijuana, scientists say,

    How generous of them to omit alcohol and tobacco from that starting point, eh?

  11. “I’m so shocked still that so many parents are not considering enough the dangers of early drug use.”

    Is it just me, or is this an inept translation of a statement orignally made in a foreign language? Or perhaps the uncomfortable syntax of one for whom English is a second language? It hurt my ear when I read it.

  12. “Adolescents have the greatest rates of marijuana use, and they also have the greatest amount to lose by using marijuana, scientists say.”

    I could not read anymore of this story after coming to the above sentence.

    Stop The Drug War

  13. Great googley moogley!

    How can this tripe still be playing? WTF? Seriously, What. The. Eff’n. uhm.. eff. Why does the median keep swallowing this? What’s in it for them? I don’t understand how such shabby reporting makes it into the paper. It’s like USA today is getting paid to run propaganda for the drug warriors.

    Now where did I put that roll of aluminum foil? Odin this is depressing. I’m going to start drinking, just as soon as I make a new hat.

  14. Sam franklin,

    If I’m big pharma, I would definitely be supporting the legalization of recreational drugs. Right now I have to convince MDs to prescribe my products (or convince my customers to convince their MDs to prescribe my products).

  15. If I’m big pharma, I would definitely be supporting the legalization of recreational drugs.

    so would I. I would go further and say that I would be dropping lsd in the coffeemaker over at the reaserch department:


    It is too bad that I am not the CEO and you the CFO of a big pharma company. both HnR and USA Today would read a lot different than they do now. and u could teach me about NASCARs and their races.

  16. oops, i see someone beat me to the trippin’ Crick thing.

  17. oops, i see someone beat me to the trippin’ Crick thing.

    Yeah I was thinking about it the other night, you know, thinking I should break out of the stereotype of a spoiled, lazy, hedonistic, bourgeois HIPPIE and put my temporary siddhis to good use.

    And I thought, damn, that’s a pretty cool thing to do when you’re on acid 8-P

  18. I have always really, really wanted to try LSD, but never had an opportunity. Mostly because they illegalized it soon b4 I was born.

    Now I am pretty sure I am too old to enjoy it.

    I heard that if you start out crazee that lsd can make you crazee-er, tho. so maybe that part worked out okay. depends on whom u talk 2 i guess.

  19. “I have always really, really wanted to try LSD, but never had an opportunity. Mostly because they illegalized it soon b4 I was born.

    Now I am pretty sure I am too old to enjoy it.”

    In 1971, at the age of fourteen, I dropped two hits of strawberry acid; it sucked.

  20. Sure, you can mock the article but I know from personal experience what can happen, when gates are left open. First, I tried the milk. After a few years some older sibling lured into trying Coke or Pepsi or maybe even root beer. As a teenager some one dared me to try coffee. Man, it was awful, I had a bad trip but I came back for more. I had to go to detox, rehab and take the 12 steps. I have learned my lesson.

  21. what a cunt

  22. On gateway “drugs”:

    My long-time childhood friend, with whom I snuck alcohol frequently in middle school, was severely asthmatic. He died at the age of 23 years from a heroin overdose, and yet had never once smoked a cigarette or marijuana. It is my belief that alcohol ( combined with the sneaking and the lies to parents and other authority figures ) was my gateway to marijuana and every other inroad to possible use of addictive drugs. I firmly believe that prohibition contributes to todays kids viewing all adults as two-faced contradicting liars, with nothing more than control, as opposed to individual’s health and welfare, as an end result of draconian drug policy measures. Lack of trust…lack of communication. Since I couldn’t believe a word of the BS from my parents or the droll lectures from the “pigs” in my classrooms on career day ( and other propagandic public education endeavors ), of course my view slanted toward individual decisions based on personal experimentation and shared experiences from those I could trust…MY PEERS. Lack of respect for the law becomes endemic in today’s environment of zero-tolerance and fascist government rhetoric. Our children aren’t stupid, they see right through our spinelessness and realize we are impotent in our own self governing ( of which they are excluded ), so the result is “rebelliousness”, which sadly sometimes ends in self-assisted termination. “Because I say so” didn’t work for our parents, why do we let our government tell us this?

  23. I’ve done a 180 on drug policy thanks to what I learned in USA Today. Rats that smoke pot in their adolescense are more sensitive to heroin as adults.I didn’t realize the SCIENCE backing up the gateway drug theory.Now anyone who disputes the gateway FACT is clearly a Marijuana Harm Denier.I knew that somewhere my tax dollars were going to a good cause. I salute the brilliant Scientists and the noble sacrifice of those poor rodents. I hope those poor rats are all on methadone now.

  24. single… you are probably right…your tax money does go to USA today, the true scientists with the “facts”.

  25. No, my tax dollars went to the researcher.
    Only the government would fund a grant to buy rats marijuana and heroin. I just hope the researchers saved enough-and got DEA/FDA approval to treat those rats with methadone for their heroin addiction. I shudder to think , after their courageous service in proving the gateway drug theory, those poor animals suffered the agonies of withdrawal.

  26. “you start out with blankets, you move on to quilts, and the next thing you know you are strung out on comforters”

  27. TO: tros | February 7, 2007, 2:25pm

    The mechanism is free association. The ability of a brain to better see affinities between divergent or contradictory concepts to achieve a uniquely new outcome.

    Stop the drug war. I wanna get off.

  28. Federally mandated taboos are a gateway to the facination of the people to break those taboos.

    Has USA Today chosen to research that?

  29. Sam Franklin said:

    “I would go further and say that I would be dropping lsd in the coffeemaker over at the reaserch department:”

    I hope you’re joking. Dosing someone without their consent is extremely cruel, dangerous, and rightfully illegal.

  30. I hope you’re joking.

    1. I think the fact that I was putting myself in the role of the CEO of a major pharmaceutical company and “Nascar Fan” in the role of CFO was a tipoff that the scenario was fanciful.

    2. Notwithstanding point 1, let me clarify that the comment was intended as a joke. If anyone read my post and thought clandestinely dosing people was more acceptable than they had b4 — CANCEL THAT THOUGHT. Wrong way to interpret what I said.

    3. If I ever do dose the coffeepot, I will make sure to put up a prominent notice so that my research scientists only take the trips they want. It will make it easier to identify and lay off those who voluntarily decline.

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