Friday, August 25, 2017

Update: Data on MJ-related traffic deaths in Colorado

Yesterday I wrote this piece condemning the Department of Justice for citing the skewed reporting of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) in its attempt to de-legitimize legal marijuana programs in several states. Among the conclusions presented in the HIDTA report was that legal marijuana directly led to an increase in marijuana-related traffic fatalities in Colorado. A report by the Northwest HIDTA drew similar conclusions for Washington state.

As I explained yesterday, the data in the HIDTA reports may come from legitimate sources, such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), but it is intentionally presented and analyzed in a way that makes legalization seem like an apocalyptic scenario, which it just plain isn't. Claims such as rising rates of teenage use aren't backed up by other, less problematic studies, such as the Colorado Healthy Kids Survey. Rising rates of ER visits related to marijuana aren't so much evidence for pot harming society as they are for people recklessly or accidentally over-consuming a non-lethal substance. In its reporting, HIDTA clearly only included data from categories that it knew would show negative trends, so again, the group's reports are not the most honest lens through which to view the effects of legalization.
Coloradans, let's not drive high, mmk?

That said, today The Denver Post's Cannabist section published an excellent analysis of state and NHTSA data that confirms RMHIDTA's claim that marijuana-related traffic fatalities have increased in Colorado since legalization. I encourage anyone reading this to go read that article; reporter David Migoya and the rest of the Cannabist staff did a lot of solid, painstaking work to put the data in context, clarify important methods and terms, and present the information in a way that allows the reader to draw reasoned conclusions instead of making a knee-jerk judgment.

Though it reached a similar conclusion, the Cannabist's reporting is in direct contrast with that of HIDTA; data on drugged driving is fraught for a number of reasons (again, go read the article!), but the Cannabist staff made every attempt to clarify and contextualize it. HIDTA, on the other hand, simply presented the data as uncomplicated, speak-for-themselves numbers in order to support its rigid ideology that drugs are bad and we shouldn't be legalizing them. There is far more value in the former method than in the latter, not the least of which being that people are more likely to trust, and therefore act on, conclusions reached by methods like the Post's.

There are two big takeaways from today's Denver Post report: 1) the best evidence so far shows that marijuana-related traffic fatalities are indeed rising in Colorado, and 2) in contrast to what HIDTA implies in its own report on the same data, the context provided in the Post shows that this trend alone is hardly an indication that legalization is failing or has failed.

What the Post report says to me - and I would guess to most rational observers - is that the state and the cannabis industry need to do a much better job at educating consumers and the public about the risks of drugged driving, and law enforcement needs to nail down a reliable way to test for marijuana impairment -  and guess what? The Cannabist has a great article on that, too!

Have a great weekend, everyone - stay safe, and don't drive high!

Thursday, August 24, 2017

"Alternative Facts" nothing new in the cannabis policy arena

It is no secret that the Trump Administration has made a habit of lowering the standard for basically everything the national discourse. This began back in January with Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway's now-famous remark that the president was simply presenting "alternative facts" to defend his gleefully incorrect boasting about the size of his inauguration crowd.

The truth, of course, is that the US government has long been a purveyor of "Alternative Facts," no matter who was in the White House. This is especially true in the realm of drug policy. One of the more obvious instances is the DEA's constant, unequivocal declaration that marijuana is not medicine, despite a plethora of studies and anecdotal evidence to the contrary. In past decades, when public support for marijuana law reform was relatively weak, prohibitionists could offer misinformed and patently false claims about cannabis without any major scrutiny. They could also rely on the weight of federal authority to lend credence to their misinformation.

That has all changed now. Well over half of the American public supports marijuana legalization, and several states' experiments with legal pot markets have only caused the plant's poll numbers to rise (the reasons for this are numerous and are probably fodder for another post). Those who support legalizing and regulating cannabis have gotten better at forming evidence-based arguments, and so far, the facts are on their side: science is finally getting around to confirming marijuana's medical usefulness and states that have legalized have largely succeeded in keeping many of pot opponents' worst fears from materializing.

Sessions DOJ doubles down on dubious MJ report.
But true to its past, and especially to its present, the federal government is again demonstrating its belief that its own information matters more than, well, actual information. This time it is in the context of US Attorney General Jeff Sessions's correspondence with governors of four weed-friendly states - Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska - regarding the effectiveness of their legalization programs.

In April the four governors sent a letter to Sessions asking that the feds touch base with their administrations before engaging in any major marijuana enforcement activities. In July Sessions responded to the governors with a letter that questioned the effectiveness of their programs, liberally citing data from a recent report by the Northwest and Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTAs). Among other things, the reports allegedly document legalization-related increases in teenage marijuana use, black-market diversion, and higher rates of marijuana-induced vehicle crashes. (In case you're wondering, HIDTAs are hybrid federal-state drug enforcement organizations that serve under the National Office of Drug Control Policy. They date to the Reagan era - these agencies are not and have never been interested in any kind of drug policy reform).

The problem with the HIDTA reports - as with many other federal reports on marijuana trends - is that they are inaccurate. As they did with a previous HIDTA report, astute observers immediately published critiques that punched holes in the studies' most ominous claims. And on Wednesday a group of Washington state lawmakers (both Dems and Repubs) sent a letter to Sessions disputing every statistical claim made by the US Attorney General in his July letter.

Predictably, a Justice Department official responded to the lawmakers' letter with an email saying that  an "updated HIDTA report" confirms the original report's documentation of "troubling developments" in states with legal weed. True to form, in response to legitimate critiques of its primary data source, the DOJ did not offer other, perhaps more legitimate sources, but merely doubled down on the "updated" version of the same source. Our information is better than yours, still better than yours.

Props to the Washington lawmakers for calling out the skewed HIDTA report and the Justice Department's unquestioning acceptance of it. At the administrative level, the war on drugs has always been an information war. While they may be a relatively new foe for the country at large, purveyors of "Alternative Facts" have been laying siege to the truth about US drug policy for decades.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Feds Issue $3.8 Million for Medical Marijuana Study - Wait, Really?

As I've said before on this blog, good news is rare these days - and it's even rarer after the violent, hate-filled weekend that we're all struggling to recover from - so I'm quick to jump on a good story when I see it.

Today's good news: The federal National Institutes of Health (NIH) approved a five-year, $3.8 million study at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine to see whether marijuana can reduce opioid use for adults dealing with chronic pain.

The Einstein College's MMJ study - will its results be taken seriously?
This is surprising on a couple different levels. First, marijuana is still classified as a Schedule I Controlled Substance, meaning that the feds consider it to have "no currently accepted medical use." That categorization alone has made it difficult for medical researchers to conduct trials on the efficacy of cannabis as a medicine. The DEA, which enforces the Controlled Substances Act and maintains a hardline stance against medical marijuana, has a huge impact on the kinds of drug studies the NIH can approve. So it is kind of amazing to see historically and rigidly anti-pot federal agencies serve up a ton of money to a study that may end up contradicting their own assertions. Second, Jeff Sessions, a decidedly anti-pot figure, is head of the Justice Department, which oversees the DEA, so on many levels you'd think that there would be no chance in hell for research like this to receive federal support.

Perhaps the Sessions team was too distracted with other things (the AG's mini-feud with our egomaniac-in-chief?) to notice this funding and put a stop to it; or perhaps he has taken the amazingly pragmatic view that any kind of research that may help solve the nation's awful opioid addiction problem is worth funding. Also - and I know this is going to sound crazy - Sessions may not be as anti-pot as his past words and actions have indicated. After all, he is AG in 2017, not 1977, and with all these states setting up legal markets in defiance of federal law, he kind of has to play nice. Sessions's recent correspondence with the governors of Colorado, Washington, and other weed-friendly states suggests he's more into monitoring what's going on there instead of marching in the Drug War shock troops.

But there could be yet another angle to the approval of this MMJ research funding. The federal government has approved large-scale studies on marijuana before - for the sole purpose of concocting data to back up its assertion that marijuana is a terrible, horrible, no-good very bad substance. These included the La Guardia Report (1945), the Shafer Commission (1972), and a comprehensive report by the National Academy of Sciences (1982). The problem was, all of these studies came to the conclusion that pot really wasn't all that bad, and warranted both more medical research and a softer policy approach. The results of these studies were politically inconvenient for drug warriors like Harry Anslinger, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan, so they were never addressed. 

So is this new NIH funding an honest attempt by the federal government to understand medical marijuana's' potential to help one of the worst medical crises our nation has faced in years? Or is it another attempt to use slanted "scientific research" to confirm what the DEA keeps saying about medical marijuana? The study's abstract suggests it will be legit, but who knows what caveats the Einstein College had to agree to in order to secure the funding. 

If the study shows that marijuana is indeed a helpful and less harmful alternative to opioid pain medication, there's no guarantee that the feds won't just sweep it under the rug, like they did with all their other expensive marijuana studies. The makers of Oxycodone and other opioid producers would certainly pressure them to do so, and their impact on federal drug policy and enforcement is well documented.

I'm not saying this good news will eventually turn sour, but I'm highly suspicious of the federal government's sudden interest in honestly testing the validity of medical marijuana.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Despite negative impacts of prohibition, Hickenlooper keeps telling other states to "wait" on MJ legalization

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper has always been a cautionary voice when it comes to weed legalization, but five years into his state's foray into legal cannabis, the time has come for him to lead more forcefully.

A few days ago, in a Facebook live interview with Politico's Playbook Exchange, Hickenlooper trotted out his usual, squeaky-clean marijuana soundbites, repeating his belief that other states should "wait a year or two" before legalizing. "Let's make sure there's no unintended consequences that we haven't been able to measure yet." He went on to say that some of his initial concerns about legalization, including greater use by teenagers and more people driving under the influence, have not materialized. He also noted some unexpected benefits, such as senior citizens choosing pot instead of opioids for pain relief. A recent meeting with US Attorney General Jefferson Davis Jeff Sessions, he said, went well, with Hickenlooper coming away with a sense - conveyed in a weed pun - that the Justice Department "has higher priorities."

CO Governor John Hickenlooper
As he's proven in the past, Hickenlooper is reluctant to speak his mind if the facts aren't on his side, and with marijuana, it's becoming increasingly evident that they are. So while I think it's responsible for him to be concerned about future impacts of legalization, I don't think he's sending the right message to other states, or the federal government, when he tells them "wait a year or two" before legalizing.

The problem with this "wait and see" approach is that prohibition in other states and at the federal level is not something Americans want or need to see go on for any longer. In 2015, a year after Colorado started selling legal recreational weed, more than a half million people went to jail for marijuana possession. A disproportionate amount of those who went to state prison for drug offenses (57 percent) were people of color. Meanwhile, prohibition has sustained high black-market prices that encourage outlaw growers to use environmentally destructive cultivation practices, including energy-intensive indoor growth and unregulated growth on public lands. And, as Hickenlooper himself acknowledged back in March, black-market growers sell to black-market distributors, whose dealers don't care who they are selling to, be they adults, teens or pre-teens.

So why does Hickenlooper keep telling other states to wait? Governor, legal systems in Colorado, Oregon, and elsewhere are not perfect, and may result in "unintended consequences" down the road. But those consequences will pale in comparison to those of prohibition, which remains the worst marijuana policy any state or nation can have. It encourages criminal activity that often turns violent, it leaves the door open for underage use, it unfairly punishes minorities, and it wastes billions of taxpayer dollars on largely symbolic and ineffectual raids.

Governor, show some backbone on this. Your state is leading the way on sensible marijuana policy - own it, and act the part. Endorse New Jersey Senator Cory Booker's recent bill to deschedule and decriminalize cannabis at the federal level. Remind other governors of the awful social and financial effects of prohibition, and encourage any state considering legalization efforts to move forward. Take a stand against an unjust policy that has been mindlessly, cruelly, and needlessly extended for decades. The citizens of this country need any kind of positive leadership they can get right now, and on drug policy, you're in a great position to lead.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Legal cannabis is getting greener, but illegal weed is still a problem

Good news is hard to come by these days, so when I find it, especially within my own little area of expertise, it really is worth savoring - even though it comes from what is basically a report about a report.

Ahem. Per Forbes, a recent report by the decidedly pro-cannabis media firms Salar Media and Civilized Media pulled out five major trends in the legal cannabis industry, and a push for environmental sustainability is one of them:
"The cultivation of cannabis is leading to a greater stress on water and sustainability practices in agriculture"
Huzzah! Music to the pro-weed environmentalist's ears! But then, alas, dismay: the report proceeds to conveniently ignore the systematic ecosystem destruction carried out by unregulated pot growers in northern California, choosing instead to praise the growers' firm Humboldt's Finest for its promotion of "a rain grown, sun grown cultivation technique."

Humboldt's Finest, a coalition of sustainable growers in northern California,
is leading legal weed's push for 
environmental sustainability.
That's all well and good, but Humboldt's Finest - a small coalition of ecologically conscious growers - does not even begin to represent the dominant growing practices in Humboldt County or the rest of northern California. Based on recent estimates, there are at least some 10,000 growers in the region, and most of them do not belong to Humboldt's Finest. Most of them do not even grow for the legal market, and most of them are regularly dumping plastic and pesticides into the woods and siphoning water out of already-stressed river systems. Moreover, even the responsible growers of Humboldt's Finest play a role in the excessive erosion that clogs those same river systems with silt.

To be clear, I'm not faulting Humboldt's Finest for doing what they do; it is laudable that a contingent of growers in the nation's most famous weed-growing region are leading a push for sustainability. But I don't think it is responsible for pro-cannabis outlets like Salar and Civilized Media to tout those positives without acknowledging that overall, cannabis farming is still unsustainable, and it will take a supreme effort by far more people than just those inside the industry to reverse course.

Reports on (and on behalf of) the legal cannabis industry need to acknowledge the ecological destruction of outlaw marijuana growing and put pressure on lawmakers (especially federal lawmakers) to develop policies that will rein it in. So far, the policy that seems most likely to achieve that is federal legalization. Prohibition may be over in California and many other parts of the West, but that doesn't mean it isn't still propping up the nationwide price for black-market marijuana. With high prices, outlaw growers are encouraged to keep up the large-scale, environmentally destructive cultivation methods that are currently wreaking ecological havoc in California.

Legal, sustainable cannabis should be the law of all the land - not just in states that are on the vanguard of the new industry. The long-term health of northern California's forests depends on it.