by Tina Brown Celona
In the interest of full disclosure, the author of this article is the domestic partner of Read Spear, owner of The Bud Depot and Lyons Indoor Gardening.
It doesn’t surprise me that Mickey Lohr claims that marijuana is a dangerous, mind-altering drug. It does surprise me that he expects reasonable people to believe him.
There have been an enormous number of “facts” reported about medical marijuana by the opposing sides in this debate. Fortunately, it is not that difficult to find out whose facts are grounded in science, and whose are grounded in propaganda, or fabricated out of thin air.
I’m a teacher, and I always tell my students to include support for their claims. The more provocative the claim, the better your proof has to be. That means that if you say something like “marijuana is a dangerous, mind-altering drug,” you had better be quoting data from independent, double-blind studies that have been subjected to peer review and published in major medical journals.
Pastor Lohr’s claims rest entirely on anti-cannabis propaganda published by federal government agencies in pursuit of their mission to prevent and prosecute the use of all drugs that the federal government has declared illegal.
Though Lohr omits the quotes, “marijuana is a dangerous, mind-altering drug” is taken directly from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) booklet “Speaking Out Against Drug Legalization.” If you go to the DEA website to get the facts on the issue, you will find that the author of the booklet provides no proof to substantiate his claim. He says that the FDA came to this conclusion “after reviewing all of the available information,” but does not identify the document from which the phrase was taken. As a result I have no way of verifying that the FDA actually said that or any way of knowing upon what medical or scientific evidence the claim was based. The DEA writer doesn’t expect me to check his source, but to simply accept that what he says is true because he has the authority of the federal government behind him. In fact, the nine pages of endnotes to the DEA booklet cite sources that cannot be considered objective by any standard. These include federal government-funded research studies, reports by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (whose leader, the so called “drug czar,” is contractually obliged to oppose any attempt to legalize any drug the federal government has declared illegal, including marijuana), and transcripts of federal court rulings. A surprising number of endnotes direct one to the popular news web site Science Daily. But the author of the booklet does not expect his readers to question any of the claims he makes, because most people will not take the trouble to read the endnotes or even remember that there is a qualitative difference between the information provided by a news article and the results of a double-blind academic research study. In many cases it is necessary to read the study itself, in order to determine if the protocols that were used were sound and to make sure that the writer is accurately and truthfully reporting what he has read. Claims without evidence are opinions, not facts.
To support his main assertion that marijuana addiction is on the rise among teens, Lohr cites a press release by the office of Colorado Attorney General John Suthers. In the article, Suthers repeats the conclusion of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which is that there has been “a disturbing rise” in drug use among youth and that this is because more kids are smoking pot. In fact, the NIDA survey found that past-month and past-year use of marijuana increased slightly (.2%) among 8th graders only. That means that there was no increase in past-month and past-year use among 10th and 12th graders. The survey also found that “Daily use of marijuana among all three grades increased between 2009 and 2010.” It did, but only slightly—less than 1% in each of the grades surveyed. Like the pastor, the authors of the study and the Attorney General exaggerated the “spike” in marijuana use to convince credulous people that decriminalizing marijuana will lead to an epidemic of marijuana use among teens. But the numbers don’t lie. In fact, the largest percentage increase in daily use, a .9% increase among 12th graders, is considered statistically insignificant because the increase is less than one-third of one standard deviation from the mean (because of sampling errors, scientists only consider an increase significant if it is at least two standard deviations from the mean). To get around this, the NIDA scientists claim that the increases are significant for the three grades combined. If you check the data, which is published online, you’ll find that marijuana use among teens has increased much less than you might expect.
For parents looking for guidance on how to talk about marijuana with their kids, Safety First: A Reality-Based Approach to Teens and Drugs, a free booklet distributed by the California State Parent Teachers Association and downloadable at http://www.safety1st.org/, offers a progressive approach to drug education based on solid, scientific research. The author of the booklet, Dr. Marsha Rosenbaum, a medical sociologist, conducted clinical studies under the auspices of the National Institute for Drug Abuse for 18 years and now directs the San Francisco office of the Drug Policy Alliance, a non-profit group committed to ending the “war on drugs.” For every fact Rosenbaum states, there is an endnote listing the clinical studies that support it. These are published in peer-reviewed journals like The American Journal of Psychiatry and the Journal of the American Medical Association. Some of these facts are surprising. For example, Rosenbaum claims that “There is no evidence that smoking marijuana, even long term, causes lung or mouth cancer.” Rosenbaum lists no fewer than eight clinical studies published in major medical journals like Cancer Research and the Archives of Internal Medicine.
“The vast majority of teens who try marijuana do not go on to become dependent or even use it on a regular basis.” Dr. Rosenbaum cites both a national study (the 2005 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, conducted by the federal government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) and a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.
“Those who argue that marijuana is addictive often point to increasing numbers of individuals entering treatment for cannabis. While some of these individuals are in rehab because they (or their families) believed their marijuana use was adversely impacting their lives, most were arrested for possession and referred to treatment by the course as a requirement of their probation.” Dr. Rosenbaum cites the Drug and Alcohol Services Information System (DASIS) Report, the primary source of national data on substance abuse treatment, compiled by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a government agency, and BMC Public Health, a major public health journal.
Dr. Rosenbaum urges parents who want to know more about the physiological, psychological, and sociological effects of marijuana and other drugs to seek out scientifically grounded and balanced sources. She blames “the consistent mischaracterization of marijuana” for the failure of zero-tolerance drug prevention programs “because programs and messages too often contain exaggerations and misinformation that contradict young people’s own observations and experience.” The reality, she says, “is that a trusting, open relationship with a parent or other respected adult can be the most powerful element in deterring abusive patterns.”
Demonizing marijuana in order to frighten teenagers and their parents into abstinence is not a strategy we should adopt or condone, because it doesn’t work. Parents need to discuss medical marijuana with their children, because ignoring it, or lying about it, erodes communication and trust. If statistical evidence confirms that teenage marijuana use is indeed on the rise in Lyons, the town should consider implementing a pragmatic and cost-effective drug education and school discipline program for secondary schools like the California PTA “reality-based” approach, so that many more children will have the resources they need to make responsible decisions if and when they are offered drugs.
In my view, Dr. Rosenbaum is a credible source of information about marijuana, whereas the DEA and NIDA are not. As Rosenbaum points out, addiction-proofing your child doesn’t mean denying everyone local access to medicine that helps many people live with chronic pain. It means taking the initiative to provide your child with accurate information about marijuana, beginning with facts that are supported by independent research, not government propaganda.
Some would like to reduce this debate to a simple choice: ban or regulate. But banning dispensaries from Lyons will not, as some hope, send a message to our youth that using marijuana is harmful or socially unacceptable. Instead, closing down legal outlets for marijuana will encourage an unregulated black market in cannabis, which poses a far greater threat to the youth of our town than licensed dispensaries. It is our responsibility as citizens to educate ourselves about medical marijuana and to insist on evidence for any and all claims that are made for and against it. This means distinguishing between reliable and unreliable sources of information, and not accepting statements ‘at face value’ because they are uttered by an authority figure, be it a local pastor, an elected official, or the U.S. Government. For the sake of everyone involved, it is essential that this debate be guided by reason and science, not fear and ignorance. A realistic assessment of the risks associated with medical marijuana, and of current conditions within the industry, will help our officials to develop a fair, humane, and balanced regulatory policy for medical marijuana businesses in Lyons, one which will shield our youth and the community from possible harm without infringing upon the civil liberties that we all enjoy as citizens of a democratic state.