Marijuana Has Become A Media Darling, But Are Journalists Too Soft On Pot?

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BY @JOELMWARNER ON 01/19/16 AT 1:45 PMJake Browne, a cannabis reviewer for the Denver Post, samples a strain at the Medicinal Wellness Center in Denver.PHOTO: ZACHARY ARMSTRONG

On the evening of Thursday, Dec. 17, Kevin Sabet was working on what he believed would be a bombshell. Sabet, founder of the anti-marijuana legalization organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), had received a tip from someone associated with the Obama administration:State marijuana-use estimates for 2013 and 2014, which had just been released by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), found that Colorado, which launched the country’s first legalized marijuana program in 2014, now led the nation in monthly marijuana use among those 12 to 17 years old. The development was due in part to decreases in marijuana use in other states, although youth marijuana use in Colorado had also increased slightly. The District of Columbia, Oregon and Washington, all of which have also legalized marijuana, came in at fourth, fifth and sixth places in the rankings, respectively.

“What went through our heads was, ‘This is big news,’” says Sabet. “We felt this would absolutely reach a wide audience.” After all, the day before, the National Institutes of Health’s 2015Monitoring the Future survey, which found that nationwide teen marijuana use had fallen slightly overall, had received widespread coverage. Wouldn’t this report generate major headlines, too?

Sabet rushed out a press release. Then he waited for the onslaught of calls he expected from reporters. Instead, all he heard was crickets.

The lack of media response to the survey numbers leads to the question: After decades of critical reporting on marijuana issues, if they bothered to cover the subject at all, have the media as a whole moved too far in the opposite direction? Are reporters and editors now so high on the topic of cannabis that they’re going too soft on the subject?

Google News analysis of how the media covered two youth marijuana-use surveys in December indicates SAM may have a reason to feel snubbed. Between Dec. 15 and Jan. 15, there were at least 156 news reports on the Monitoring the Future report, which many have interpreted as being supportive of the marijuana movement (as the Washington Post noted of its data, “The case for marijuana legalization just got stronger”). During the same period, Google News recorded just 17 stories on the SAMHSA report, which, according to Sabet, raises questions about legalization.

The SAMHSA figures weren’t necessarily less newsworthy. As drug-policy expert Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine, notes: “Any state considering whether or how to legalize marijuana needs to pay close attention to this new data on teenagers in Colorado and Washington. It could be nothing, but I don’t think it should be dismissed.”

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