It’s like Reefer Madness all over again

Leland Rucker | Boulder Weekly

Denver police suspect a man used cannabis before murdering his wife. A young man leaps off a balcony to his death and authorities say a marijuana edible was a factor. Headlines trumpet studies that say young users are susceptible to brain damage and IQ loss by even casually using cannabis.

It’s like Reefer Madness all over again. I recently finished Martin Booth’s excellent Cannabis: A History, and seeing all these headlines in the wake of legalization efforts here and in Washington reminds me of the days when Harry Anslinger, and later Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan-era Justice Departments, used deception, headlines and lies to demonize cannabis use throughout much of the 20th century.

This time, though, the backlash comes not just from government agencies, but from some medical professionals, law enforcement groups and prohibitionist lobbyists. Their means of communication are the same: sensational headlines delivered by a complacent media with neither intention nor the means to actually read or question the studies that arrive weekly on one aspect of cannabis or another.

Saturday morning I awoke to a wealth of headlines about cannabis and heart attacks. CBS News wrote that “Marijuana Use May Lead to Cardiac Arrest and Other Heart Problems.” Fox News was even more frightening: “Marijuana Use May Lead to Heart Complications, Death, Study Says.”

That isn’t really what the study indicated, and we’ll get back to those screamer headlines in a moment.

It’s been long known that cannabis use can increase heart rates. My doctor mentioned this to me a decade-and-ahalf ago. So that’s not exactly news. And it doesn’t indicate that cannabis causes heart problems.

For this study, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, French researchers looked at data compiled by that country’s Addictovigilance Network between 2006 and 2010. In five years of statistics, they found 35 cases among 2,000 admitted marijuana users with known medical conditions linked to the heart and arteries in the brain or limbs. Of the 35, 20 suffered a heart attack. Nine died from cardiovascular complications.

That’s about it. There’s no information about what other drugs patients might have been using or what else might have contributed to the heart attacks. The authors suggest that the actual numbers are probably higher, but since many people in a country where it’s illegal might not tell a doctor about their cannabis use, the numbers could be a lot lower, too.

I have no reason to believe the doctors are trying to mislead, but today, with cannabis in the news, it pays to come up with a conclusion that will get you headlines, and they certainly went with the most provocative suggestion they could find in their data. It’s a secondary study, based on someone else’s research, and the authors admit that the conclusions might show a need for an actual clinical study that could isolate more factors and come to better conclusions.

But let’s return to the headlines for a moment. In an age when the cheap, misleading headline — i.e. This video will break your heart and make you want to change the world, but only if you click on it and watch the entire thing!! — has been elevated to high art, we’re being fed heds designed not to tell us what the story actually says, but just to try and make us click on it.

And, quite frankly, too many socalled online media outlets these days don’t actually read stories or studies or question individuals. In a 24/7 news world, items like this get boiled down to essentials, a couple of outrageous tweets and a clever headline. On to the next meme.

After a while, the headlines blend together, with advocates naming their favorite study to prove their point and prohibitionists promoting their own in a weird case of my-study-is-biggerand-better-than-your-study. Readers, especially on the web, with its blaring heds and hyperlinks, are left with a bewildering array of deliberately misleading headlines and pithy analyses of subjects that surely deserve better.

Some of the television coverage could easily give someone the impression that legalization is creating some kind of gigantic, entirely new market. Certainly there are going to be people who, for whatever reason, haven’t used cannabis but are curious now that it’s legal.

But make no mistake: The market is already there. It’s been functioning, despite 70 years of prohibition, and is now one of the largest crops in the United States. It’s a market that in Colorado involves thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people, and it’s been effective. Until enough shops open and the market and prices settle down, don’t expect that black market to end for a while.

Interestingly, despite this wave of negativity, when I asked District Attorney Stan Garnett whether his office had experienced any particular problems in connection with legalization since Jan. 1, he said, “Boulder County has a lot of problems. This is not one of them.”

Wish that could make the headlines. But Reefer Madness apparently still rules.