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Higher Ground: Pot and post-fact

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There is a lot of inaccurate information about marijuana in circulation. For instance, during a recent conversation with an older friend, she said that that marijuana itself isn't so bad, but "it leads to hard drugs."

That's the oft-cited gateway drug theory that claims many "hard drug" users smoked marijuana before they moved on to the "really bad" stuff. However, that idea ignores the fact that many people used tobacco, alcohol, sugar, and even caffeine before they began using other drugs — and none of them carry the stigma that marijuana does as a gateway drug. Not to mention that the vast majority of marijuana users never actually move on to harder stuff.

Recently, in this era of so-called fake news and alternative facts, the organization Americans for Safe Access (ASA) struck a blow for truth in the Drug Enforcement Administration's information about marijuana. A recent ASA press release read:

"After months of public pressure, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has removed factually inaccurate information from its website. The change comes after Americans for Safe Access, a national nonprofit dedicated to ensuring safe and legal access to medical cannabis for therapeutic use and research, filed a legal request with the Department of Justice last year demanding that the DEA immediately update and remove factually inaccurate information about cannabis from their website and materials."

ASA argued that there were 25 false statements about marijuana on the DEA website that violated the Information Quality Act. The law is "for ensuring and maximizing the quality, objectivity, utility, and integrity of information (including statistical information) disseminated by federal agencies."

"The most significant point was there is no scientific basis for the gateway theories," says Steph Sherer, executive director of the ASA. "Whenever there are policy debates there's always someone who brings up the gateway theory. Also, there's no scientific basis for claims of long-term brain damage, lung cancer, or psychosis. We've been arguing these facts for years."

They finally won the argument by using the DEA's own words against the agency. Here's the backstory. A few years back the governors of the states of Washington and Rhode Island, among others, petitioned the DEA to reschedule marijuana from the most dangerous drugs category. In August 2016 the DEA rejected the petition citing, in part, their own information on the plant.

The ASA noted that, and its researchers went over the DEA information throughout its system and noted that the information was not the same everywhere. There were areas where the DEA had conceded to scientific information in one place or the other, but that information was not compiled in the 45-page document titled "Dangers and Consequences of Marijuana Abuse." Not only that, the researchers noted instances in which elected representatives cited information from that document as the reason they would vote against relaxing marijuana laws or used them to convince others to the same point of view.

"Our members, of course, are harmed every time a politician tries not to vote for medical cannabis policy because of this information, which we now know is misinformation," Sherer says.

That gave the ASA standing. Based on the IQA, the group's representatives were able to argue that the DEA had to make its information consistent over every platform. In the end the DEA quietly removed the document from its website. Going forward, politicians won't be able to argue that the DEA says these things.

The DEA document that was removed included the statement: "Legalization of marijuana, no matter how it begins, will come at the expense of our children and public safety. It will create dependency and treatment issues, and open the door to use of other drugs, impaired health, delinquent behavior, and drugged drivers."

By the way, much of that "delinquent behavior" is simply the fact that a person is using marijuana. Consider this — the use of nicotine and alcohol by underage people is also "delinquent behavior," as well as driving fast — no matter how sober you are.

Some of the deleted information also claimed that marijuana causes tumors in various parts of the body. That's all gone.

"Science may have finally killed Reefer Madness," Sherer says. "Elected officials constantly quote the DEA as the source in determining how they're going to vote on cannabis policy. As long as that information is up on the site it can determine how elected officials vote on policy."

If that policy ruled what comes out of politicians' mouths it would be a seriously different world out there. Right now President Donald Trump is calling the work of reputable news organizations "fake news" while he peddles demonstrably false information on a regular basis. How about some information quality assurance there? Let's get some information quality from the government when it comes to global warming.

In the meantime I'm willing to take a victory where it appears. Most of the misinformation is held over from the whole Reefer Madness-war on drugs axis of evil that was built on racist lies. Relevant to what is going on today, marijuana prohibition was originally tied to a let's-get-rid-of-the-Mexicans effort. All this current border wall posing is just another iteration of the same agenda.

So let's applaud the ASA for striking a blow against fake news. We're going to need a lot more truth seeking in the coming days.

Drug War continues

While we're in the realm of the federal government's relationship with marijuana, let's consider the possibilities in the new administration. A lot of folks are concerned that Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is on record as saying "good people don't smoke marijuana," will work to reverse the legalization trend sweeping across the country. An interview with Wall Street analyst for Cowen & Co. Vivien Azer that ran in Marijuana Business Daily assesses the threat and finds it not very threatening.

"U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been pretty clear about his feelings about cannabis," Azer says. "But at the end of the day, we view this as very low on the list of priorities for the administration. If you look at popular support, you would have to question why they would want to fight this fight."

Various estimates of the U.S. illegal marijuana market in recent years put it at around $40 billion. That's a lot of money on the table to just brush off.

So the financial world is bullish on marijuana. Unfortunately, the political analysis is much murkier. Last week White House press secretary Sean Spicer said, "I do think you'll see greater enforcement. The Department of Justice, I think, will be further looking into [the issue]. I believe they are going to continue to enforce the laws on the books with respect to recreational marijuana."

He also tied recreational marijuana use to the opioid epidemic. So there may be some alternative fact-making here. The bottom line is that it looks like recreational issues will be tougher than medical, which is already the case. But Azer sees something more, saying, "... [I]t seems California is positioning itself to be a defender against overreach from the Trump administration."

The fight isn't even close to over.

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