There’s something in the water

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Spoiler alert: There was never any tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in the Hugo water supply. Rather, this is a story of false positives, of fear overtaking reason and ultimately a lesson in the nuances of truth telling. Without further ado…

Last Thursday afternoon in Hugo, a small town in the Eastern plains of Colorado, the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office issued a hastily written tweet saying:

“Hugo Residents Evidence of THC in town water,Dont drink,shower,or cook w/it.Fresh H20 coming Will advise when it arrives. #HugoWater”

According to Michael Yowell of the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, the initial tip about contamination came from an undisclosed company using field tests to check employees for levels of THC. A vial of tap water was used to demonstrate what should have been a negative result, but came back with a positive indicator instead. This prompted a comprehensive testing of Hugo’s water supply and distribution system, in which Lincoln County officials conducted several tests around town, a few of which came back positive.

Although not enough to make conclusive claims, the initial positive results were enough to alert the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, Rocky Mountain Poison Control and other authorities, who have the ability to further investigate the possible contamination and look into the kind of health effects that a potential contamination could have.

It was also enough to ignite a public scare and a media frenzy as news sites rushed to cover the events as they unfolded. In the abundance of content that ensued over the weekend, it became difficult to discern fact from fiction. There was rumor of tampering with the well and allegations of criminal activity. The Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office issued instructions to find an alternate source of drinking water for people, and pets and pregnant women were advised of the alleged dangers of ingesting THC.

In the first hours after an event, when being accurate is most difficult, it is also most important, because it is then that public opinion is most impressionable. Truth is, at best, elusive and sometimes it’s more about unlearning than gaining new knowledge. As we step out of the shadows of marijuana prohibition, we are undoing decades of incorrect beliefs and opinions about a plant we were taught to fear. How quickly we are ready to return to those fears in sacrifice of what is less comfortable, but ultimately more true.

Easy in principle, the truth is not so easy in practice. Ask any journalist if they should be truthful and they will say, “Yes;” then ask them if they are and they will likely say something along the lines of, “I try my best.” It turns out that truth isn’t a thing at all, but a complex and often contradictory process that unfolds over time.

The #HugoWater incident started off with dozens of headlines like “Colorado town’s water supply laced with marijuana” and articles making claims about hard evidence and warned about the danger of THC, each replete with their own fair share of easy marijuana jokes and puns. The consequence of this may seem minor or even beneficial — after all, isn’t it better to be safe than sorry?

But consider the repercussions of inciting fear, not only about the safety of one’s drinking water, but of the completely unfounded idea that THC can contaminate water and cause dangerous side effects. Cannabis has been shrouded in false claims regarding its health and public safety dangers for decades, and not without consequence. Patients have been denied the medical benefits of the plant, people’s lives and entire communities have been destroyed by unnecessarily harsh criminal penalties and an entire society was duped into thinking that the plant was harmful without any supporting evidence.

During the Hugo water scare, a few media channels consulted with experts who pointed out THC’s poor water solubility.

Joseph Evans, a former EPA scientist who now serves as lab director at marijuana testing lab Nordic Analytical, told the Denver Post that he “can’t even fathom the idea that THC would be in water at any type of solubility to create any kind of health hazard.”

To be sure, there are public safety concerns when it comes to THC and, for the most part, these are dealt with responsibly and promptly by authorities. For example, cannabis facilities cannot compost organic waste because it is likely that THC will contaminate soil or other oily organic matter in the right conditions. But is there a danger of THC being in the water?

Michelle Wind, the Boulder Drinking Water Program Supervisor, says that while the City of Boulder does not test for THC in particular, they do monitor the output from grow houses and extraction labs, just as they do from any other industrial facility, testing mostly for pesticides and other agricultural byproducts.

They also diligently monitor water supplies and distribution systems for other contaminants (many of which should be of far greater and regular concern than THC). For example, just two years ago chromium-6, the contaminant that came to fame in the film Erin Brockovich, was detected in Boulder’s water supply.

#HugoWater is a reminder not just to our public officials and media, but to media consumers as well. Despite the temptation to know something immediately, there is also an option for discernment — to trust that not knowing might be the firmest ground on which to stand.

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.