Newsweek The Daily Beast: Marijuana Can Kill You and/or Make You Kill Your Baby

Newsweek runs a hit piece on pot.


Tony Dokoupil, a senior writer at Newsweek and The Daily Beast, emailed to say that this piece ran at the latter publication, not the former.

"The upsides of legalization have been wildly oversold, and the potential downsides blithely ignored," reads one of the most awful pieces Newsweek The Daily Beast has run about drugs in a long time, titled "Why Legalizing Marijuana on Election Day Might Not Be a Good Idea." In defense of author Tony Dokoupil, who says he is ultimately opposed to prohibition, the case his story makes is not only his case, but that of Mark Kleiman and the authors of Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know. 

But because it's published in a widely read outlet, we're going to address its inaccuracies and hyperbole, point by point:

Every year about 375,000 people end up in the ER with marijuana-related "averse reactions," more than any drug other than cocaine. Some of those cases are the result of multiple drug interactions, where marijuana gets the blame while cocaine does the damage. But for many tens of thousands of ER visits marijuana is the only drug mentioned. And there's even data suggesting that, as the authors of "Marijuana Legalization" put it, "marijuana can kill." Between 1999 and 2007, the Centers for Disease Control, somewhat curiously, attributed 26 deaths to cannabis use—half in the subcategory "dependence."

According to the National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey (NHAMCS), the 375,000 instances in which marijuana is noted in an ER visit are not necessarily instances in which marijuana caused an "averse reaction." Rather, the survey tells us that in those 375,000 cases, marijuana was "commonly involved in an emergency department visit." So, if you smoked a joint on Tuesday, and on Thursday you blew a tire in your work vehicle and careened into a guard rail, then had your blood drawn at the ER, marijuana was involved in your emergency room visit. While people do ocassionally get so high that they call for an ambulance, the NHAMC survey doesn't distinguish between people who go to the ER with drugs in their system, and people who go to the ER because of the drugs in their system.

Furthermore, marijuana is not the second most "involved" drug in emergency room visits. According to the NHAMCS and the CDC, it actually comes in fifth, after alcohol (involved in four million ER visits a year), pain relievers (595,000 visits), drugs to treat insomnia and anxiety (433,000), and cocaine (422,000). Again, those drugs are "involved" in visits, but their use wasn't necessarily the cause. Lastly, to cite statistically insignificant data as evidence that marijuana kills is simply bad journalism. Can't we get a frightening anecdote with that slop?

On to the next point:

Drug treatment programs for marijuana have fives times the number of enrollees as they did just two decades ago. Most are referred by the U.S. criminal justice system, but many are not—and enrollment has more than doubled in European and Australian programs as well.

If you concede that the spike in rehab admissions is caused by government coercion, you've undermined your point that rehab admissions are evidence marijuana is more addictive. Nevertheless, this is a good time to note that the proliferation of drug courts over the last two decades, which now number roughly 2,000, coincides with increased mandatory treatment for marijuana users:

These marijuana users are not more addicted than meth users or pill poppers. Many of them are recreational smokers who don't need rehab, but prefer it over jail time or a criminal record.

Another questionable claim:

Marijuana use may also have measurable domestic costs. Only two holidays a year show a spike in sudden-infant-deaths: New Year's Day is one, and the other is the day after 4/20, when pot use is celebrated.

While there's no hyperlink for this data, I didn't have a hard time finding the study it came from. "SIDS Spikes on New Year's Day: UC San Diego Study Suggests Link Between Sudden Infant Death and Alcohol," reads the press release from UC San Diego:

The number of babies who die of SIDS, or sudden infant death syndrome, surges by 33 percent on New Year's Day. The suspected reason? Alcohol consumption by caretakers the night before.

The study also found a rise in SIDS just after April 20 (or 4/20), a counterculture celebration of cannabis, and after July 4, which is also known as an inebriated time, though the rise on neither of these date is as dramatic as on New Year's. [emphasis added]

The authors acknowledge important limitations to the current study. The large datasets contain very little information per case, Phillips said, so "we could not specify the detailed mechanisms and cannot determine whether alcohol is an independent risk factor for SIDS, a risk factor only in conjunction with other factors or a proxy for risks associated with occasions when consumption increases."

To summarize: The study wasn't about marijuana, but alcohol; the authors say it has limitations. Yet Newsweek The Daily Beast (and presumably Kleiman and company) uses it to suggest marijuana is associated with an increase in SIDS. Update: Beau Kilmer, co-director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center and co-author of Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know, emails in response to the SIDS study mention:

On page 80 of our book, here's what we write after mentioning the SIDS study:

"There are a number of hypotheses (e.g., parental caretakers are more likely to sleep in; exposure to smoke), but at this point there is no compelling evidence linking this spike to marijuana rather than other factors, such as concurrent alcohol use"

Your piece implies that we attribute this finding to marijuana, which just isn't true.

Duly noted. Also, Kleiman has responded to Dokoupil's piece here.

On to the next one:

As for the war on pot, it's just not as high stakes as you might assume. About 750,000 people are arrested on possession charges every year, a howlingly large number. But virtually none of those folks end up in prison. Fewer than 400 people are serving state or federal sentences for marijuana possession alone, and many of those people plead down to that charge, or have serious histories of violence.

To say that almost nobody goes to jail simply for pot possession allows you to discount prisoners in states where possession gets prosecuted as possession with intent to sell (like Florida); people who go to jail for failing drug court, failing to stay off pot during probation, and/or failing to pay fines and fees associated with their sentence; and people incarcerated under three strikes laws. 

At the same time, focusing only on the few pot users who go to prison ignores both the thousands of nonviolent dealers, growers, and traffickers who go to prison, as well as the millions of people whose lives are ruined by less harsh penalties for pot possession. Imagine how hard it would be to get a job if the first result Google returned for your name was a mugshot or a local news story about your arrest. So you don't go to jail–a judge can still confiscate your license, sentence you to in-patient rehab, force you to report the arrest to your employer, or give you a curfew. He or she can fine you, too, and lock you up for contempt if you don't pay. Those things have ramifications.

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To his credit, Dokoupil closes the piece with an almost sensible suggestion:

The better decision is incremental reforms at the state level and a hands-off approach from the feds. Let people grow pot, and sell it, but not for profit, and without advertising, and in a tightly regulated marketplace. Tinker every year, adding new provisions and privileges as much needed new research comes in. And always update the law with a sunset provision. That way the process can't be hijacked by lobbyists and special interests—and only one thing goes up in smoke.

I daresay pot dealers in Colorado and Washington would find a way to make money even if it were forbidden. We should allow them to: Profit incentivizes competition, competition leads to choice, choice is freedom for the consumer. Furthermore, the process has already been hijacked by lobbysts and special interests. Cop unions, drug law reformers, alcohol companies, the rehab industry–they've all weighed in on the pot issue with their wallets. Legalizing marijuana without allowing people to legally make money on marijuana, or express their opinions about how the system should work, is a recipe for failure.