Reefer Madness: Only 3 Percent of Pot Stories Mention Health Risks

As stoners call for education, networks leave users high (and dry).

As stoners prepare for their annual 420 smoking “holiday” on April 20, the broadcast networks have done little to educate users on the risks of their leafy drug of choice in spite of extensive reporting on state legalization of pot.

Network evening news reported the growth and legalization of recreational marijuana in Washington state and Colorado. ABC, CBS and NBC evening news programs spent more than 30 minutes discussing the newly legal drug between Oct. 1, 2013, and March 31, 2014. However, the networks rarely addressed marijuana-related health or safety risks, despite blunt support for such education among pot advocates.

Leading marijuana advocates, such as those at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana admit that research into health risks “benefits everybody” and that “impaired drivers [should] be taken off the road.”

Colorado and Washington both legalized recreational marijuana in 2012, and Colorado ushered in commercial pot sales on Jan. 1, 2014. But over six months, including two months leading up to Colorado’s pot sales, and the four months that followed the networks focused heavily on marijuana legalization, devoting 30 minutes and 30 seconds in 23 stories.

However, the networks spent only 54 seconds on health risks, ignoring them 97 percent of the time. Similarly, they took only 1 minute and 20 seconds to address stoned driving, ignoring this issue more than 95 percent of the time.

The networks hyped legalization, while concealing possible risks. On Jan. 1, ABC correspondent Clayton Sandell,  promoted the economic benefits of marijuana legalization on “World News.” He called it the “Colorado green rush.” That same day, NBC’s “Nightly News” correspondent Gabe Gutierrez called it a “historic day” before declaring that “the world is watching.”

Yet, even marijuana activists agree that the public must be educated on the health and public safety risks of widespread pot use. Rachel Gillette, the Colorado executive director of the pot advocates at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) told the Los Angeles Times that research “benefits everybody” because “any drug… are going to have health risks.”

Mental Health Risks Mentioned in Just 3 Percent of Pot Stories

Marijuana has legitimate health risks and may contribute to mental health problems, but the networks aired only 3 stories mentioning pot-related health risks. Each of these segments briefly mentioned risks and focused on pot’s dangerous effect on teen users. None of these three stories addressed mental health risks for adult users.

Scientific research has connected marijuana use with severe mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia. The British Royal College of Psychiatrists published a leaflet warning that “regular use of the drug has appeared to double the risk of developing a psychotic episode or long-term schizophrenia.”

The non-profit Erowid Center publishes information on a wide variety of drugs and is widely regarded as promoting drug use. Still, Erowid co-founder Earth Erowid wrote that marijuana use “probably worsens symptoms in some of those vulnerable to psychotic disorders.”

Marijuana may also cause anxiety or panic attacks in some users. Harvard University, in a 2010 newsletter, wrote that “about 20% to 30% of recreational users experience [intense anxiety and panic attacks] after smoking marijuana.” Harvard specified that this is especially common among new users.

A small study just published in The Journal of Neuroscience looked into the way marijuana may alter the brain, according to news reports including USA Today.

While such research does not prove that marijuana use alone causes mental illness, it does show that use can trigger or exacerbate pre-existing mental conditions.

Driving High: Networks Rarely Mention Safe Driving Concerns

Pot legalization has also raised widespread concerns over the risks of users driving stoned. The networks only covered these concerns in four brief stories, spending only 1 minute, 20 seconds on the issue.

One of these segments discussed law enforcement attempts to crack down on stoned driving and the frequency of the problem for almost a minute. But that story was the exception to network coverage, since none of the other three stories were longer than 15 seconds.

Research has indicated that marijuana, while less impairing than alcohol, does negatively affect the user’s ability to drive. In February, NPR reported the National Institute on Drug Abuses’s Marilyn Huestis saying that stoned drivers “have more trouble staying in lanes, they struggle to do multiple tasks at once.”

Pot advocates agree that driving while stoned is a problem. NORML’s Principles of Responsible Cannabis Use contains the assertion that “Public safety demands not only that impaired drivers be taken off the roads, but that objective measures of impairment be developed and used.”

The issue of stoned driving is quite complex and bears discussion. It is difficult to tell if somebody has smoked based on blood or urine samples because, as The New York Times reported marijuana “returns a positive result days or weeks after someone has actually smoked it.”

— Sean Long is Staff Writer at the Media Research Center. Follow Sean Long on Twitter.