Out, Out Damned Pot

Out, Out Damned Pot
Posted by FoM on March 11, 2000 at 19:48:15 PT
By Maia Szalavitz
Source: NewsWatch
Are the media so keen to push anti-drug news that they're prepared to sacrifice scientific credibility?More evidence that reporters spotlight stories which reflect the prevailing biases: Of three recent studies on marijuana, the American media focused most heavily on the one that showed negative effects, while the British media gave greater weight to the two which found the drug's actions to have positive results.
The U.S. is currently heavily committed to a "war on drugs" position, while the U.K., like most of Europe, has begun to seriously debate cannabis decriminalization and other "softer" measures to reduce drug-related harm.Though the fact that the two positive studies were conducted (a) in European countries and (b) on animals may partially account for American reporters’ downplaying of them, the American study was covered by almost all of our major media despite not yet having been published in a peer-reviewed journal.Coverage of the other two was spotty in the U.S. – but made most of the major U.K. papers and the BBC. The negative study received twice as much coverage by major American papers and networks as each positive study did. On the other side of the Atlantic, the ratio was almost reversed: Only the BBC, an Irish newspaper and the Daily Mail covered the negative, American story and the BBC actually mentioned the positive studies in its story.Of course, the fact that the negative story was presented by a researcher from Harvard University at the American Heart Association meeting does offer prestige and news value. But the British media may have been right to ignore it, because the study itself doesn't say much that can be considered important.The study reported an association between marijuana and heart attacks and is the first study to document such an association. According to Dr. Marvin Mittleman of the Harvard School of Public Health, a person's heart attack risk quintuples for the hour after smoking a joint, and then returns to normal within two hours.However, despite the fact that being the first to discover something often means ‘news’ to reporters, to scientists it means that the results should be considered preliminary until they are replicated. When dealing with a drug like marijuana, which has been demonized by the government, the fact that these effects are being seen for the first time should be cause for skepticism, rather than cries of "At last!" Tobacco researchers, for example, didn't have to look far before uncovering hundreds of major negative effects of that drug, and there has been a comparable amount of study into the effects of marijuana. Also, the new study could not determine whether this heart attack risk could actually lead to increased mortality – and in fact, several epidemiological studies suggest that it doesn't. The most important was a study of over 65,000 patients aged 15-49 in the Kaiser Permenente Medical Care Program in northern California, which was published in the American Journal of Public Health in April, 1997. It showed no increased risk of death among current marijuana users compared to either non-users or those who had ever tried pot in the past.The new study also could not provide information on whether marijuana caused the heart attacks – all it found was that out of 3,882 heart attack victims, 3 percent smoked pot and, of this group, 37 percent had smoked pot within a day of their heart attacks. No information was given as to whether the marijuana smokers also smoked cigarettes or how frequently they smoked pot – either of which could affect the results. There was no information on whether they had had sex after smoking pot or engaged in other strenuous activities which might independently increase risk.To pump up the media value of the study, Mittleman suggested that pot smoking could become a significant source of cardiac mortality as boomers age: "Many of these people were users of marijuana when they were in their teens and 20s, and a sizable percentage of them may still use the drug, either frequently or occasionally," he said in a press release. However, statistics from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association belie this notion. While about 50 percent of people between 40 and 50 years report having tried marijuana, less than 4 percent typically respond that they’ve smoked it in the past month.And while a five-times-greater heart attack risk sounds scary, for an otherwise healthy 50-year-old man this amounts to a one in 100,000 chance of having a heart attack during any particular pot-smoking session. This is less than the risk a couch potato faces when starting to exercise vigorously – but twice the risk a healthy person that age would face when having sex or exercising.The two studies largely ignored by the U.S. media looked at the impact of marijuana and marijuana-like substances on brain cancer and multiple sclerosis (M.S.). The M.S. study, which was published in the prestigious journal Nature, found that cannabinoids (the active ingredients in marijuana and marijuana-like synthetics) have a significant impact on tremors and spasticity in mice with a disease used to model human M.S.These effects were particularly potent early in the disease – and backed the claims of people with M.S. who have long said that cannabis is helpful to them. (M.S. is a chronic and often severely debilitating disease affecting thousands of Americans for which there are few effective treatments and no cure.)The brain cancer study, published in Nature Medicine, found that THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in pot, helped eliminate or reduce a currently incurable form of brain cancer in rats. The researchers plan human tests – though some cancer doctors are skeptical, claiming that the rat model isn't precisely transferable to humans and that the study couldn't determine whether the THC or the liquid used to infuse it into the brain caused the effect.Whatever the flaws and merits of these various studies, journalists and editors should constantly examine their own biases when they decide which to cover and which to ignore. They should also question research methodology and become familiar with the literature in the area that they cover. Without context, a report on a single study can be highly misleading. Published: March 9, 2000Maia Szalavitz is a contributing editor to NewsWatch.All articles are copyright of: CannabisNews DrugSense & MapInc. News Articles & Archives:
Home Comment Email Register Recent Comments Help

Comment #3 posted by mungojelly on March 12, 2000 at 08:04:43 PT:
a more accurate title
A more accurate title for articles about this so-called negative study would be "smoking marijuana found to temporarily increase heart rate." Doesn't sound quite so evil that way, does it? But that's all it comes down to. Anything that increases your heart rate makes it more likely you will have a heart attack: exercise, sex, caffiene, etc. In fact the correlation between caffiene use & increased risk of heart attack is very well established (& peer reviewed). I guess someone needs to start building new jails for all those coffee drinkers... 
[ Post Comment ]

Comment #2 posted by kaptinemo on March 11, 2000 at 20:29:02 PT:
Key point: Peer Review
'Though the fact that the two positive studies were conducted (a) in European countries and (b) on animals may partially account for American reporters’ downplaying of them, the American study was covered by almost all of our major media despite not yet having been published in a peer-reviewed journal.'Notice the important factor in this remark: peer review. As the old saying goes, 'Just sayin' it's so don't make it so'. The hypothesis must be examined, the theory tested. It's the process where the wheat is seperated from the epidemiological chaff. Where the scientific accountants of the world find out if the experimenters have been 'cooking the books' with false data or been engaging in sloppy science, so to speak. In this case, it hasn't been done yet.But the next point is a doozie:'But the British media may have been right to ignore it, because the study itself doesn't say much that can be considered important.' And the explanations the author gives for this statement very precisely covers the reasons.But the most unsettling thing about this entire article is that, once again, we must rely upon a foreign media source to provide the US with this information... and balance. The stories about MMJ effectiveness in treating cancers and spasticity get 'spiked' (an practice that editors often do when the story goes against their particular political or social biases) in the US, while the dubious-looking, unreviewed study is trumpeted from the rooftops. The US media is often accused of bias. Of leaning Left or leaning Right. But those distinctions are but smoke and mirrors to distract you; remember the Barry-ola revelations of media types pocketting big bucks from ONDCP? Well, they evidently haven't yet learned their lessons, because they're still at it. How else can you explain two positive studies being spiked, and one negative one being treated as Gospel? Follow the money, friends, follow the money every time. 
[ Post Comment ]

Comment #1 posted by FoM on March 11, 2000 at 20:00:48 PT
Another Test Page
[ Post Comment ]

Post Comment

Name: Optional Password: 
Comment: [Please refrain from using profanity in your message]
Link URL: 
Link Title: