Reefer Scare Tactics: Is This a Cannabis Apocalypse?

Cannabis is more accepted than ever -- yet willful disinformation is ramping up. Again.
Cannabis is more accepted than ever -- yet willful disinformation is ramping up. Again. /

The steady growth of the cannabis industry, even during a global pandemic that saw cannabis dispensaries qualify as “essential businesses” in most states where it has been legalized, confirms the value of this booming new cash crop industry for consumers. Doubts about people accepting this new industry have faded. A Pew survey in April showed that 91 percent of American adults agree that marijuana should be legalized for medical or adult-use.

Nothing, it seems, can stop this multi-billion dollar juggernaut even as it struggles to gain true business operability as a purveyor of what the Federal government says is a prohibited narcotic.

But recently, as legal cannabis businesses open in more states (19 at last count, plus Guam and the District of Columbia), there appears to be forces at work attempting to derail the industry.

Yes, there are a few glimmers of hope that the Feds may be softening their stance ever so slightly on cannabis by allowing more medical cannabis grow operations.

And yes, bills in Congress about legalizing or clarifying certain aspects of cannabis have gotten some traction.

With all the cannabis tax revenue piling up in states where both medical and adult-use cannabis are legal—well over $300 million in FY 2019-2020 in Colorado, and topping $1 billion in California during that same period—state and federal lawmakers can’t just look the other way. They need to make more business-friendly things happen, starting with banking for cannabis businesses as a top priority. It’s been a long-term process, but it’s in progress.

The New Wave of Reefer Madness

Curiously, more news reports with misleading headlines and cherry-picked study findings are cropping up that seem timed to stop or even kill the legalization movement. 

Cannabis is causing a mental health crisis. Cannabis causes suicide. Cannabis can kill.

This “reefer madness” redux is like nothing that’s been seen in the last 20 or 30 years. Something or someone—such as the anti-cannabis industry group Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM)—is throttling up the chatter that serves to keep the conservative investor at bay and the anti-cannabis soothsayers wagging an “I told you so” finger at cannabis industry owners and operators.

SAM claims to have had over 4,000 media mentions in 2020 alone, including top outlets such as the New York Times, CNN, the Chicago Tribune, USA Today, the Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal, New York Post, Denver Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Fox News, NBC News, and Politico. 

In 2019, SAM simply said that they had “set multiple records for media and press placements” without giving any more specifics about what that meant. It appears that 2020 SAM wants you to know that mainstream media is more on board with its mission.

One of those SAM media mentions, CNN, has apparently stepped up their anti-marijuana reporting with a steady drumbeat of scary headlines in this year of more cannabis legalization efforts in Congress.

A CNN Health report in January cited a study showing smoking cannabis may expose the consumer to the same type of toxic chemicals found in tobacco smoke.

A CNN Health report in June said that, according to a study by the American Medical Association, cannabis use may be linked to an increase in suicide. 

But read further in the study and there is a sort of disclaimer: “Future research is needed to examine this increase in suicidality and to determine whether it is due to cannabis use or overlapping risk factors.”

Cannabis can cause schizophrenia, another CNN Health headline on July 26 read. Dig deeper into the study and you will find this: “However, it is unclear whether cannabis disproportionately increases the risk of specific types of psychotic experiences and whether genetic predisposition influences the relationship between cannabis use and psychotic experiences.”

On September 8, CNN Health cited a study that found consuming cannabis can cause a heart attack. But beyond the headline, the study actually reported that its effect on “other cardiovascular outcomes” remains incompletely characterized. “Although heavy cannabis use has been reported to trigger acute myocardial infarction, the current evidence is limited to case–control studies that are prone to bias and studies relying solely on administrative data.” Hmm.

Then there is the CNN Health report on September 17 about cannabis-induced vomiting happening to 19 chronic cannabis consumers in Australia in 2004, with a similar finding documented in eight cases in the U.S. in 2010. 

But researchers in those cases are not sure what it is about cannabis that is causing the vomiting, saying it may be related to the THC level (a big anti-cannabis talking point), or it may or may not be about the chronic cannabis consumer. Or, well, who knows. “It's not entirely clear who is predisposed to getting it,” said Dr. Sam Wang in the CNN report, a pediatric emergency medicine specialist and toxicologist at Children's Hospital Colorado, who treats adolescents with the condition. “Is it a certain frequency or duration of use? Is it a specific potency? Or is it a specific type of product? We don't have that data.”

Wang’s research also found that “the duration, frequency, route, or potency of cannabis products used that leads to greater risk for developing this illness has not been determined,” then added a contradictory statement that there is “substantial concern that the increase in long-term and frequent cannabis use, especially with products containing high amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), will lead to an increase in the prevalence of cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome (CHS).” Hmm again.

On October 25, CNN reported that vaping marijuana by teens has doubled in the last seven years—linking marijuana to the evils of vaping, which is a real health crisis and another talking point of the anti-cannabis crowd. 

Why are these reports appearing on such a worldwide media enterprise like CNN, that cherry-picks information from some science journals or lab researcher white papers without giving the whole story? Could it be timed to affect public perception as legalization actions have picked up this year? Let’s look. 

Congress Sees Flurry of Cannabis Activity in 2021

There’s been a flurry of work this year in Congress—especially in September and October, when CNN anti-marijuana reports appeared to have ramped up—on legalizing or otherwise aiding the growth of the legal cannabis industry.

On September 24, the House of Representatives advanced the Secure and Fair Enforcement Act (SAFE) of 2021, which allows state-licensed marijuana-related businesses to engage freely in relationships with banks and other financial institutions, marking the fifth time the House has advanced the legislation in recent years. 

It was offered as an amendment to the $740 billion National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022, which passed the House and was sent to the Senate on October 18.

A bill to legalize cannabis that stalled last year in the House was discussed and advanced on September 30 in the House Judiciary Committee, with a spirited discussion of the pros and cons that generally appeared to favor advancing the bill. That far-ranging bill, the Marijuana, Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act of 2021, made history when the highest ranking senator, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, released a “discussion draft” in July. 

The MORE Act repeals the long-standing federal prohibition of marijuana by removing it from the Controlled Substances Act, ending the existing state/federal conflict in cannabis policies and providing state governments with greater authority to regulate marijuana-related activities, including retail sales. 

Of all the cannabis-related bills in Congress, this bill likely has anti-legalization proponents on high alert. “Never before has public support from every corner of the political spectrum been so aligned as to demand that Congress take action to end the shameful experiment with marijuana prohibition,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal said.

SAM’s President and CEO Kevin Sabet appeared on CNN with Erin Burnett the day that Schumer introduced the MORE Act discussion draft, shamelessly promoting his anti-marijuana book, and saying “there is a good reason why the scientific community is pretty united in opposing (the bill).”

On October 6, Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Corey Booker (D-NJ), two long-time proponents of marijuana legalization and sponsors or co-sponsors of multiple pro-cannabis bills, wrote a letter to new Attorney General Merrick Garland urging the Department of Justice to “initiate the process to decriminalize cannabis.”

Garland is seen as the final gatekeeper in allowing legalization. He said in testimony during his Senate confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on February 22 that “it does not seem to me a useful use of limited resources that we have to be pursuing prosecutions in states that have legalized and are regulating the use of marijuana, either medically or otherwise,” when asked about marijuana legalization by Sen. Booker. “I don’t think it’s a good use of our resources where states have already authorized (marijuana), and it only confuses people, obviously, within the state.”

So what are industry watchers to make of the curiously coincidental big media attempts to squash the cannabis industry as the momentum for legalization speeds up? Is it a sign that the industry has matured to the point where tit-for-tat media hits will be a regular thing now? Is it just CNN and other media outlets seeing data deliveries like the Pew survey and then deciding to roll out more stories about marijuana because more people are talking about it? 

Or is the recent big media negative publicity campaign a warning of more back-and-forth, more good-vs-evil discourse, more delays in legalization to come?

Stand by. CNN has the whole world watching.

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