Government Marijuana Scare Stories Deliberately Confuse Correlation with Causation

If you've read the news the past two weeks, you may have noticed eye-grabbing headlines with bold proclamations that marijuana use leads to increased risk of heart disease and that teens who use marijuana suffer from greater rates of depression. If you took the time to read these so-called "studies," however, you know that they are fear-mongering government propaganda pieces meant to stand in for science. Unfortunately, with a few exceptions — like David Harsanyi's column in the Denver Post — much of the media has simply parroted the government's press releases.

Let's start with "Teen Marijuana Use Worsens Depression: An Analysis of Recent Data Shows 'Self-Medicating' Could Actually Make Things Worse," a seven-page "report" mostly filled with bar graphs and empty space, prepared by the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). It's never a good sign when you've got to use "Could Actually" in the title of a report.

As usual, the government's deceptive claims are based on the deliberate confusion of correlation with causation. As criminology professor Matthew Robinson, Ph.D, explains in his analysis of ONDCP's latest report, credible social science must demonstrate both temporal order and a lack of spuriousness to make a claim of causality. In other words, scientists have to consider the order in which things take place as well as other variables that could be responsible for an outcome prior to concluding that one phenomenon causes another. ONDCP's report ignores temporal order by failing to account for whether marijuana use occurs as a result of depression, or vice versa. Worse, the report doesn't take into account other variables that might account for both outcomes — such as family environment, peer groups, use of other drugs, etc. As Victor Reus, a psychiatrist at the University of California, explained, "Both conditions could be related to something else. Depressed teens are more likely to exercise less, stay indoors and watch TV. Take your pick as to which one is causal."

Media accounts of ONDCP's teen marijuana-depression report omit mention of larger, more credible studies that present evidence to the contrary. For example, in April 2008, a British government advisory panel concluded that there is no conclusive evidence of "a causal relationship between the use of cannabis and the development of any affective disorder." Meanwhile, in November 2007, the American Medical Association's peer-reviewed journal, Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, published a comprehensive study of 5,263 students finding that teens who have used marijuana demonstrate the same rates of psychosocial problems as those who have never used marijuana.

Next, let's take a brief look at the study that prompted the bold Reuters headline, "Marijuana May Up Heart Attack, Stroke Risk." First of all, the study only examines a scientifically insignificant sample of 18 marijuana users, who smoke "78 to 350 marijuana cigarettes per week" — 11 to 50 joints per day. While we don't know precisely what fraction of the roughly 20 million Americans who have used marijuana in the past month smoke at least 11 joints a day, needless to say it is a miniscule fraction.

Even more ludicrous, the study doesn't even evaluate whether any of these extreme marijuana smokers actually have an increased risk of mortality. The study simply found that heavy marijuana users showed increased blood levels of a particular protein called apolipoprotein C-III that is involved in the body's metabolism of triglycerides, but didn't examine whether these users were more likely to develop heart disease.

Again, this study flies in the face of larger, more credible studies. A 2001 study published in the Journal of Public Health Nutrition that examined approximately 11,000 marijuana users and non-users found that marijuana smokers' nutritional health was equal to that of non-smokers. Another 2001 study published in the journal Circulation examining the association between heart attacks and marijuana use in 3,882 heart attack sufferers found negligible risks — about the equivalent of the risk of vigorous exercise for someone of average fitness. A 1999 British Heart Foundation study even found that marijuana-like compounds play a key role in reducing high blood pressure, suggesting that marijuana could be a useful treatment for hypertension. And then of course there's Dr. Donald Tashkin's authoritative 2006 study finding that even heavy marijuana users are not at increased risk for lung cancer, contrary to government claims.

Still, don't expect the government's half-baked attempts to demonize marijuana to end soon — they're the product of the confluence of several institutionalized interests. First, there is the need to justify arresting 830,000 people on marijuana charges each year (89 percent for mere possession). Second, the federal government's National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) offers hundreds of millions of dollars in easy money to researchers willing to make claims about marijuana's harms — surely to increase with NIDA's recent establishment of the nation's first "Center on Marijuana Addiction." (Click here for NIDA's own research comparing the addictive properties of popular drugs, finding that even caffeine use causes stronger symptoms of dependence, withdrawal, and tolerance than marijuana.) The third factor in the proliferation of quack marijuana science is the general willingness of the mainstream media to buy government scare tactics hook, line and sinker. This dates back to the prohibition of marijuana in the 1930s, when journalists dutifully parroted Harry Anslinger's claims that one marijuana cigarette will transform children into murderous psychopaths and similarly senseless propaganda.

The silver lining is that people from all walks of life are beginning to question the government's truthfulness when it comes to its drug policies. The emergence of the Internet as both a source for news and watchdog to the mainstream media has been critical to this process. The House of Representatives' Domestic Policy Subcommittee also recently convened a hearing to examine the effectiveness and accountability of the ONDCP. The chairman of that committee issued a statement squarely condemning the Office for its failure to report any concrete successes, its unwillingness to comply with Congress' standards of accountability, and its lack of "consistent or useful performance measures."

Let's hope that growing numbers of policymakers, media commentators and everyday people are willing to put science over politics and support rational alternatives to the disastrous "war on drugs."

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Very well said. We must continue to fight this propaganda machine.


It's so scary to think that we, as citizens, can trust no one.

When it comes to our health, stretching the truth to fit tradition should never be a factor.

Shaheen Lakhan

Here is fact: Marijuana has the third highest rate of dependence in the US (after heroin and crack). We recently wrote on this issue at Brain Blogger. I would like to hear your comments on our article. Thank you.


skinny minny

A lot of people are making a lot of money off the drug war. It's a whole industry. ONDCP produces "educational" programming available for downlink to healthcare professionals and universities, among others. That's not cheap, and we're paying for it.

They (DEA, ONDCP, etc.) want marijuana to remain illegal so they don't have to look for honest work.

The ignorance of the "powers that be" is astonishing. Those who are in a position to bring some sanity to our drug laws know nothing about marijuana, so they fall for that manure being spread for profit.

The health effects of marijuana are well documented. Glaucoma, arthritis pain and fibromyalgia, just to name a few. It's OK with the government for doctors to prescribe dangerous, addictive drugs (Oxycontin, e.g.), but balk at the simple, effective herbal solution for many medical problems.

The government cares nothing for our health. They are interested in the "bottom line," their bottom line.

Pat Rogers

Even if any of the government's fear-mongering were true that does not justify the current prohibition based economy that puts more drugs into the hands of children.

As long as the congress prohibits America from regulating, licensing and taxing the violent criminal anarchy out of the distribution there will be drug dealers and gangsters on the street corners of America happy to sell drugs to children. Instead of the drug addict dealers and gangster distributors of the current prohibition we could have responsible, licensed and regulated members of the community, who share American values about protecting children from exposure to drug abuse, in control of the $ 141-billion annual U.S. consumer demand for intoxicant drugs.

Pat Rogers

End Marijuana Prohibition in 2008

It can happen.


After many years of wobbling back and forth over the "war on drugs", I have come to the conclusion that all drugs should be decriminalized and that drug addiction should be listed as a medical problem instead of a criminal problem. As far as I know, the only thing the "war on drugs" has done is make felons, fill our jails, make certain people rich and make drugs cheaper.

brian bennett

the main problem is that most people have no idea how miiscule the drug "problem" actually is. nor do they understand how much worse the impacts of drug abuse have been made by declaring "war" on the drugs and the users thereof.

only the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth will lead us to the end of this nightmare.

look at it yourself:

site map page:

tell everyone

Paul Diamond

Recreational Drugs must be legal! No one can argue that drug abuse is a scourge in our society. However, as bad as the effect of drug abuse on our society is, the effect of prohibition is considerably worse. If drugs were legal, under controlled conditions as is the legal drug alcohol, hundreds (perhaps even thousands) of lives would be saved each year. Criminal and terrorist organizations would be denied a major source of income. Crime would be reduced. Doctors can use any efficacious treatment that will benefit the patient most. Billions of tax dollars could be diverted to useful and successful things. The economy would grow and provide benefit for more people. The social benefits would be manifold.
Many of the deaths that are now pigeonholed as 'drug overdose' are, in fact, caused by drugs that are purer than the users' accustomed dose. This will cause an overdose by merely taking the dose to which they are accustomed. Other deaths are caused by the drugs being 'cut' (diluted) with impure or dangerous substances. At present drugs are cut with anything from relatively harmless things such as baking soda, powdered sugar, lactose and corn starch to poisons like strychnine and arsenic.
Legal drugs would fall under the supervision and standards of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) thereby insuring cleaner, purer drugs at consistent dosages. In addition, intravenous and intramuscular drugs could be packaged in single use syringes that are designed to be destroyed by the act of using them once. Thus preventing the reuse and sharing of needles. This will reduce the spread of AIDS, hepatitis and many other types of infection. Hence, more lives saved, as well as reducing the burden on public resources since many drug abusers cannot afford to pay for medical treatment.
Legal drugs will take the drug trade out of the hands of criminals and terrorists. It will eliminate the wars for territory and many of the drive-by shootings that have become commonplace in our inner cities. We will not only save the lives of the dealers who are the targets of these shootings but the innocent bystanders, too often children, who get caught in the crossfire.
It will prevent future attacks of the nature of the attack on our Marines in Lebanon, the American Embassy in Kenya and the World Trade Center by terrorists who are, in part, financed by the drug trade.
Speaking of saving children... Legalizing drugs with the appropriate regulation and control would severely limit the access of drugs to children. Just as minors cannot legally buy alcohol, they would not be able to walk into a state regulated drug store and buy drugs. Under the present conditions drug dealers don't care if the customer is 5 years old or 50. 'If you got the green you got the dope.' Consequently, more lives saved.
Let us now discuss crime. Legalizing and regulating drug production and sale will quickly eliminate a whole plethora of crimes relating to those endeavors. Crimes such as smuggling, producing and selling drugs would cease to be profitable. These crimes would cease to be, except perhaps, for a few diehard adventurers. Or in those locales where the local community has mandated that it remain illegal (After all, their is still a thriving 'Moonshine' industry despite the legality of alcohol). We would also eliminate the crime of possession of drugs. It will also limit the availability of funds to finance other crimes such as illegal gambling, prostitution, extortion and terrorism.
Drugs will likely be cheaper. The supply would be relatively consistent. Market forces such as 'supply and demand' will be less of a determining price factor. Nor will the 'risk' factor to dealers and smugglers affect price. The cost of producing most illegal drugs is minimal, particularly in an industrial setting. Therefore, legalization will reduce crimes such as burglary, mugging and prostitution.
The laws we enact to legalize and regulate drugs must include severe, mandatory penalties for the violation of those laws. In addition, crimes committed while under the influence of drugs and crimes committed for the purpose of obtaining drugs must be dealt with more severely than crimes committed for mere profit.
I would like to propose that criminals motivated by an addiction to drugs be treated as the sick people that they are. That they're conviction require a mandatory, indeterminate stay at a drug treatment facility until such time as the addict is declared, by a proper medical authority, not only free of the addiction, but unlikely to return to drugs. Then, when the addict is cured of their illness they will be returned to the sentencing authority to determine if further criminal penalties are in order. It would also be nice if said medical authority, as well as parole boards and other agencies with the responsibility for releasing criminals into society be held personally responsible for those decisions. But, I suppose that is too much to ask.
Mandatory drug testing in critical industries, massive drug education efforts and a changing social climate as relates to the non-acceptance of drug abuse by the general public in recent years has been more effective in the control of drug use than prohibition ever was.
Another cost factor for drugs which will be eliminated is one that is not talked about very much, but it's effect on society is just as devastating, although not as obvious. That is the cost of corruption. The money that drug traffickers now expend for policemen, judges and public officials. I want to say here that the vast majority of policemen and judges (I'm not so sure about politicians) are honest, hardworking public servants. Nevertheless, they are human, mostly underpaid and overworked and some will succumb to temptation. There is today a 'revolving door' justice system with it's plea bargaining. early paroles and assorted rules that make it difficult for police and judges to do the job of taking criminals off the streets and keeping them off. This gives rise to a level of frustration and cynicism that is enormous. It is an atmosphere ripe for corruption. The surprising thing is that there is not more of it! This is a tribute to the men and woman of the law enforcement community. Corruption does exist and imbrues the character of the individuals that engage in it, as well as diminishing the institutions that depend on them. Also, we cannot forget the people in our financial institutions who 'launder' (legitimatize) the ill-gotten gains of the criminals who engage in these activities.
In addition, the elimination of drug crimes and the reduction of drug related crimes will reduce the burden on the prison system by more than half. It will free law enforcement officers to concentrate on other, more pressing, matters. It will allow judges to put away more dangerous criminals and to keep these people off the streets longer when overcrowding becomes less of a consideration.
Let's talk economics now! The legalization of drugs will, first of all, create jobs. Jobs in agriculture growing the plants. Prosperity to many third world countries and their citizens. Much of these drugs are now grown by warlords and criminals who oppress their people. Jobs in the manufacturing of drugs. Jobs in the distribution and wholesaling of drugs. As well as jobs in the retail sector. Then there are the tax revenues. The taxes will be paid by the industries that manufacture drugs. The taxes paid on the incomes of those who find jobs in the drug industries. The 'sin' taxes that will most likely be levied on drugs. If the taxes on alcohol and tobacco are any indication every dollar spent on drugs will be 60¢ to 70¢, perhaps as much as $2 or $3, will be taxes. Not to mention local sales tax. A portion of the 'sin' tax can be earmarked for effective drug rehabilitation and drug awareness education. After all it is only fair that the people who are the problem be a part of the solution. Some of that money could also be used to develop drugs that are not addicting or physically harmful but will provide the pleasure that drug users seek. Wouldn't it be nice that when a drug abuser matures enough to no longer need to use drugs to hide from their life, they can make a choice to stop. A choice unobstructed by a physical dependency. While moderate users can enjoy their pleasure without fear of addiction.
Further, the reduction of drug dealers who provide a negative role model to the young people in a community is a social benefit that cannot be denied. Today young people, especially in the slums and ghettoes of the inner cities, are given a mixed message. They are told by their families, ministers and teachers to be hard working, honest and law abiding in order to have a good and prosperous life. Then they look around and see, all too often, people who live by these ideals struggling in poverty and unhappiness at worst, struggling to make ends meet at best. Driving old beater cars (when they can afford cars), living in rundown homes, imprisoned in their homes afraid to walk the streets. While the drug dealers, pimps and thieves seem to own the streets, ride around in flashy new cars, live in classy houses and apartments and always seem to have money. Not only does this send a confusing message to the children. It creates disrespect for those people they should respect most. Children will feel they have been deceived by parents, clergymen and teachers when the lessons they are taught do not conform to the reality they see around them. Legalization will, to some extent, eliminate those negative role models. Then the children will only have corporate executives and politicians to look to for negative role models
I realize that the drug problem is an emotionally charged issue to many people. There are no accurate figures on the extent of drug use and drug abuse in this country. Estimates indicate that between 5 and 10% of the people in this country abuse themselves with drugs. The number of those moderate drug users is practically unknown. However, if we use as an indication the ratio of moderate alcohol users to the number of alcohol abusers perhaps that will give us an indication.
The people who use recreational drugs and medicinal drugs (that are illegal) moderately are often discrete, quiet, responsible people who go to work every day. They mow there lawns on the weekend and have their friends and neighbors over for dinner. However, because of the illegal nature of their activities they must keep it discretely behind closed doors, often hiding from their children even their mates. These estimates vary to some extent with the rise and fall of the economy. Poverty is a great stimulus to drug use and drug abuse. Perhaps some of the billions of dollars that will be saved by ending the so-called ‘War on Drugs' could be used to help reduce poverty. Estimates also indicate that there is no appreciable change in drug abuse figures from when drugs were legal to when they weren't.

"Sin lies only in hurting other people unnecessarily. All other 'sins' are invented nonsense. (Hurting yourself is not sinful - just stupid.)"
--Lazarus Long--

Many great people throughout history have been addicted to drugs and gone on to accomplish great things. Ben Franklin was addicted to laudanum, an opium derivative in an alcohol solution. It didn't stop him from creating the largest publishing empire in the colonies, Establish one of the first fire insurance companies, establishing the US Postal Service, discovering the nature of electricity, inventing bifocal eyeglasses, the Franklin stove, Etc.. Etc. While establishing the Committees of Correspondence, to share ideas throughout the colonies, that led to the American Revolution, serving in the 1st Continental Congress and being one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence, as well as serving as our first ambassador to France influencing the French court to support the American cause. George Washington smoked marijuana and drank Madeira wine by the keg, It didn't stop him from taking a rag tag bunch of farmers, former slaves and indentured servants, exiles and colonists to fight the most powerful and disciplined military force in the world to a standstill, as well as serving as the first president of a fledgling nation based on a totally experimental concept- Democracy!
While we are talking about the founding of this country, let us remember the freedom for the pursuit of happiness. We have an obligation to protect children. One that we too often do not fulfill. However, as adults where is our right to choose? At what point did we allow the government to be our parents? I, for one, had a very good set of parents who taught me to make discriminating choices for my life. I certainly do not need an absentee parent who cares little about my safety, my health or whether I can make a decent living. Only that I derive pleasure in an approved manner.
I have seen first hand the deleterious effects of drug abuse, as we all have to a greater or lesser extent. Not only on the abusers, but on their families, their friends and their neighborhoods. It is not a pretty sight. However, the real world often calls on us to make choices. Choices that don't always conform to standards of right and wrong, or on the basis of good or bad. Too often we must choose between the lesser of two evils. We make such choices almost every time we enter a polling booth. Every time we elect to buy a foreign-made product because it is cheaper even though we know it means taking jobs from our friends and neighbors. We make such unsatisfactory choices in many other aspects of our lives.
At this point I would like to call on all of you to look at the effects of the drug problem weigh them carefully against the points I have offered here for your consideration. Whatever choice you make, do it loudly! Talk about it with your family, your friends, your neighbors, your coworkers, the people you ride with to work. Write to your congressmen, your state assemblymen and your county and local political representatives. Let them know how you feel on the subject and remind them that you will be watching their actions and remembering come election time.
Thank you for your consideration,
Paul Diamond

Rebel Farmer

Even in the 1950's and 1960's all of us kids knew that the gov't info was stupid. The info just didn't match what we saw all around us. The end result was that we discredited ANY information coming from the government. You'd think these idiots would learn from history that their irrational demonization of marijuana was counter productive.

Maybe we should just elect politicians to Congress that have actually used the stuff (recreationally or for medical purposes) and have first hand knowledge. Seems like that's the only way we are going to stop this "War on Drugs".


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