The same phrase gets repeated over and over in the media: that supporters of marijuana legalization “claim” it is less dangerous than alcohol or tobacco.
So hearsay — that’s the only way we can figure out if this drug is more harmful than others?
There are a few reasons reporters have a hard time taking a stance on pot.
1. Government Misinformation
The federal government labeled marijuana a Schedule I substance in 1970. That meant it had “no accepted medicinal use and a high potential for abuse.”
But that decision was based on a lack of research, not evidence.
CNN’s Sanjay Gupta pointed out in an August column that the Schedule I designation followed the recommendations of the assistant secretary of health at the time, Dr. Roger O. Egeberg.
"Since there is still a considerable void in our knowledge of the plant and effects of the active drug contained in it, our recommendation is that marijuana be retained within schedule 1 at least until the completion of certain studies now underway to resolve the issue," Egeberg wrote.
Gupta points out that some researchers have looked at the harms associated with marijuana, however — and the evidence shows that weed doesn’t deserve the reputation that it’s been given by the government.
Pot is less addictive than tobacco and has milder withdrawal symptoms than alcohol. And then there’s this recently popular statistic, one that most journalists neglected to investigate for decades: there are no known overdose deaths from pot.
That doesn’t mean pot is harmless. Studies have shown it can impact brain function in young people, for example. And drivers who are impaired in any way can be a threat to other people on the road (although researchers found that marijuana might be better than alcohol in that regard).
But judging by the potential for addiction, severity of withdrawal symptoms and frequency of overdoses (never), it’s less dangerous than some other popular drugs.
2. Limits of Research
While there’s certainly research on the effects of marijuana, it’s been limited within the U.S.
The main problem is that pot is still illegal under federal law. So if you’re a researcher funded by the government, you need to get your weed from a farm at the University of Mississippi, the only place permitted to grow marijuana legally, according to the feds.
Another issue: nearly all of the marijuana studies approved by the federal government look at the harms associated with marijuana. By Sanjay Gupta’s accounting, only 6 percent of pot studies looked at potential benefits.
All of this comes back to the federal approach to marijuana. It’s been branded a dangerous drug, and the research funding reflects that.
3. News Judgment
Tell both sides of the story. That’s what they teach you at the high school newspaper.
OK, that’s great when you’re a national media outlet talking about issues that genuinely divide the country. But when you’re dealing with scientific research, you need to make a judgment about what sort of research is valid.
I mean, are you really going to include AIDS deniers in your article about the epidemic, just because they provide a counterpoint?
The Takeaway: No reporter wants to tell people that a drug is harmless, and then find out in a decade or two that they were promoting something that kills thousands of people. But using the research that’s available, you can draw conclusions about marijuana that show it’s less harmful than some other popular drugs, and doesn’t deserve the label it’s been given by the federal government.
Next up — let’s apply a scientific approach to all of the other banned drugs.
Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.