The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) released its annual Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) report on Thursday, and drug czar John Walters began spinning a web of anti-marijuana demagoguery starting with SAMHSA's initial press release. The widely-cited DAWN survey collects emergency room data on drug-related admissions in 458 hospitals in major cities across the US.
SAMHSA's press release was headed "Marijuana, Cocaine Emergency Visits Up," and led with an announcement that "emergency department mentions of cocaine increased 10% and marijuana increased 15% from 2000 to 2001. (They could have led with "Methamphetamine Mentions Show No Growth," but that's another story, one less in line with prevailing drug war demonology.)
Quick to seize an apparent opportunity, Walters went on the attack: "Marijuana-related medical emergencies are increasing at an alarming rate, exceeding even those for heroin. This report helps dispel the pervasive myth that marijuana is harmless," Walters railed. "In reality, marijuana is a dangerous drug, and adults and youth alike should be aware of the serious consequences that can come from smoking it."
What Walters failed to mention and what SAMHSA only alluded to far down in its press release is the fact that "marijuana-related emergency room mentions" are up does not mean there is a sudden epidemic of pot overdoses, nor is it indicative of large numbers of people physically damaging themselves with marijuana. "The survey is designed to provide information about emergency department visits that are induced by or related to the use of an illegal drug or the non-medical use of a legal drug. Because up to 4 drugs can be reported for each emergency department visit, there are more 'mentions' than 'visits.'"
In other words, the marijuana numbers can be based on incidents where the use is completely irrelevant, such as a person who was a passenger involved in a traffic accident who had smoked a joint earlier in the day. Or the probably more common scenario: Opiate freak Ziggy parties hard on heroin and alcohol, smokes a joint in the course of his travels, then overdoses on Oxycontin later in the evening. Another "marijuana-related emergency room mention."
The DAWN report runs to 142 pages and is full of statistics subject to competing interpretations. DRCNet will present a more detailed analysis of the report, the numbers and the spin next week. In the meantime, look for a chorus of cannabis cassandras to raise the false alarm.
The complete report (text and tables) are available at http://www.DrugAbuseStatistics.samhsa.gov online.