Reuters Admits Flawed Marijuana Reporting

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Given ONDCP's ongoing claims of 20-30 fold increases in marijuana potency, yesterday's announcement that potency has merely doubled feels more like a concession than the latest drug war scare tactic. Yet thanks to lazy reporting, this lukewarm story became the next great threat to public safety.

From Associated Press:
The government estimates that 4.1 million Americans use marijuana. Use by teenagers has declined recently, but federal officials worry that marijuana is being cited more often in emergency room visits.
From Reuters:
The marijuana being sold across the United States is stronger than ever, which could explain a growing number of medical emergencies that involve the drug, say government drug experts.

Neither story explained the concept of "emergency room mentions" from which these claims were derived. And these two reports were republished in major papers everywhere from Dallas to Sydney.

Importantly, people who mentioned marijuana to doctors weren't in most -- if any -- cases directly injured by it. Upon admission to the emergency room, you're instructed to report any drugs in your system in case they could interfere with your treatment (and it's really not marijuana they're worried about). Patients who mention marijuana include everyone from heroin users to gunshot victims to various people who fell and couldn't get up.

Marijuana is growing in popularity as a medicine, which could also help explain why sick people report having used it.

Fortunately, thanks to incredulous readers, Reuters was forced to clarify:

Lots and lots of readers asked for examples of these emergencies. We updated the story with an explanation which should have been made clear from the start, that medical emergency "means that the patient mentioned using marijuana and does not mean the drug directly caused the accident or condition being treated."

Is it any wonder that readers were confused? Statements such as "marijuana is being cited more often in emergency room visits" or "a growing number of medical emergencies that involve the drug" clearly imply that marijuana caused or contributed to the patient's hospitalization. That was ONDCP's intention, passed along uncritically by Reuters and AP with the inevitable effect of confusing the public.*

Like many things you read in an ONDCP press release, the statement on emergency room visits was so misleading that it becomes false if you change any of the words. "Mentioned" is simply not the same as "involved." Thus the media reports became more misleading than the press release they were based on, which was pretty bad to begin with.

Even when properly explained, "emergency room mentions" remain a vague and ultimately unhelpful measure upon which to base alarmist claims. ONDCP's reliance on such tenuous, circumstantial evidence speaks to the credibility of their position on marijuana policy in general.

*Reuters made a partial correction, but AP has not. Contact them here.

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Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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