David Frum Mounts a Weak Defense of His Shoddy Marijuana Column


Yesterday, Newsweek published a column by David Frum titled "The Perils of Legalizing Pot." The column has several errors, most of which seemed to have resulted from David Frum not doing his homework. Frum responded last night, point by point. I'll do the same. 

I'll start with this: Frum calls my post "an exercise in name-calling," that contains "epithets and sarcasm." In reality, my post contains no epithets, no name-calling, and absolutely no sarcasm. 

On to the substance: 

Riggs claims I am wrong to write: "Even in the 47 states that formally ban marijuana, the drug is available everywhere and at modest cost." Riggs counters that many states allow medical marijuana. But how does that contradict what I wrote? Medical marijuana states retain a formal ban upon the drug. That ban may be loopholed, but it's still the law. Only in Washington and Colorado does state law permit possession of marijuana as a matter of legal right. I used the 47 figure because I had been referring in the previous sentence to the example of California, where the medical marijuana system has collapsed into near total farce. For perfect precision, I probably should have written "Even in the other 47 states that formally ban marijuana, etc.," but the point is the point.

Again: 18 states permit and regulate the cultivation and consumption of marijuana for medicinal purposes. To say there's a "formal ban" implies that marijuana is just another illicit drug in every state but Colorado and Washington. That's misleading, even if you think–as Frum seems to–that medical marijuana is a backdoor means of protecting recreational use. But let's say Frum had used the word "other"; that still omits the Alaska Supreme Court's ruling that the possession and use of small amounts of recreational marijuana within the home is protected by a constitutional right to privacy.

2.) Frum originally wrote: 

Habitual marijuana users experience more difficulty with learning and schooling. They do worse at work, miss more workdays, and suffer more accidents. They have fewer friends and occupy lower rungs on the socioeconomic ladder.

I responded by saying that I could not find any research indicating "that pot smokers have fewer friends (or more)." In response to my query, Frum says his claim about "habitual marijuana users" is "an abridgment and paraphrase of this assessment by the National Institute on Drug Abuse." Yet that assessment, which Frum quotes from generously in his response (though failed to cite in his original column), is based on a study not of "habitual marijuana users," but of "heavy marijuana abusers," a group composed of "108 individuals, age 30-55, who had smoked cannabis a mean of 18,000 times and a minimum of 5,000 times in their lives." 

Researchers compared those "heavy marijuana abusers" to "72 age-matched control subjects who had smoked at least once, but no more than 50 times in their lives." The group that had smoked fewer times reported a better quality of life and sharper cognitive abilities. But the study doesn't say using marijuana more than 50 times will destroy all your friendships, dent your IQ, and reduce your attention span; nor does it establish a threshold past which one's life begins to get worse. What if you've used marijuana 100 times in your life? 500 times? 1,000 times? The study doesn't say at what point your life begins to suck, it only establishes an (arbitrary) usage rate for "heavy marijuana abuse."

For fairness' sake, let's assume that Frum was talking about heavy marijuana abusers. According to the 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, roughly 18.1 million Americans were "current" marijuana users in 2011, meaning they smoked at least once in the previous month. Of those 18.1 million smokers, 7.1 million were estimated to have used marijuana on at least 20 days in the previous month, and 5 million marijuana users were estimated to have used marijuana on at least 300 days in the previous year. The survey says that only 4.2 million marijuana users suffer "marijuana dependence or abuse," which means that even some pretty regular users aren't suffering from addiction, which is measured by things like poor job performance and deteriorating personal relationships. Put another way, there are a lot of happy recreational pot users. Put still another way, it would seem, based on the government's own numbers, that Frum is overestimating a) marijuana abuse and b) projecting the ill effects of abuse onto millions of recreational smokers. 

2.) On America's role as the pot-smoking capital of the world. Frum orginally wrote

Although data are difficult to come by, it's generally scientifically accepted that Americans smoke more marijuana per person than any other people on earth.

In response, I wrote "Data is not actually difficult to come by," and excerpted the relevant section from the U.N.'s annual report on illicit drug use. That section says: 

Overall, annual prevalence of cannabis use remained stable in 2010 (2.8-4.5 per cent of the adult population in 2009), the highest prevalence of cannabis use being reported in Oceania (essentially Australia and New Zealand) at 9.1-14.6 per cent, followed by North America (10.8 per cent), Western and Central Europe (7.0 per cent) and West and Central Africa (5.2-13.5 per cent). While the prevalence of cannabis use in Asia (1.0—3.4 per cent) remains lower than the global average, due to Asia's large population the absolute number of users in Asia, estimated between 26 million and 92 million, remains the highest worldwide.

Frum first faults me for linking to a Time story about the report instead of the U.N. report itself, so let me fix that. This is the link to the U.N. report; this is the link to the Time article. 

He then writes: 

That Time story notes: "Marijuana boasts somewhere between 119 million and 224 million users in the adult population of the world." Caution: if your estimate spreads over a range like that, there's your first warning that your data are unreliable.

Here's your second warning: The UN stats are based on self-reported questionnaires, not the most reliable source of information on illegal activity.

That's why the World Health Organization agrees with me, not Riggs, that in the field of illegal drugs, "good cross-national epidemiological data are limited."

However, in a careful study, 22 researchers rely on WHO household survey data to generate their own international comparisons. That study put the U.S. in first place, just as I wrote.

So data is not actually difficult to come by, it's just inconclusive?

Frum dings me for using data culled from "self-reported questionnaires," and says that household surveys, which the WHO used, are better. Yet the U.N. report also relies on household survey data, from the U.S. Survey on Drug Use and Health, the Canadian Alcohol and Drug Use Monitoring Survey, and Australia's 2010 National Drug Strategy Household Survey Report, among others (even these aren't a silver bullet: "Stigma and lack of services as well as specific behavioural characteristics tend to make female drug use less visible and may also affect reporting by women on their drug use habits in household surveys," the U.N. says). 

As for the WHO report Frum cites? It says that the "proportions of respondents who ever used cannabis were highest in the US (42%) and New Zealand (42%)." That's a tie.

For those still reading: I'm not really hellbent on being right about whether the U.S. consumes the most cannabis per capita, or almost consumes the most cannabis per capita. I'm simply mystified as to why Frum couldn't cite the available data in his original piece, or even acknowledge its existence and ready availability.

That mystification extends to every one of Frum's responses: Why couldn't he use the same language used in the study cited by the National Institute on Drug Abuse? Why couldn't he clarify that 18 states have medical marijuana? Why couldn't he just say that there's no data supporting his belief that marijuana users have crap lives?

I can't help but wonder if it's because a more nuanced presentation of the facts would have undermined his claim that "Marijuana smoking is a sign of trouble, a warning to heed, a behavior to regret and deplore."