Thursday, August 24, 2017

"Alternative Facts" nothing new in the cannabis policy arena

It is no secret that the Trump Administration has made a habit of lowering the standard for basically everything the national discourse. This began back in January with Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway's now-famous remark that the president was simply presenting "alternative facts" to defend his gleefully incorrect boasting about the size of his inauguration crowd.

The truth, of course, is that the US government has long been a purveyor of "Alternative Facts," no matter who was in the White House. This is especially true in the realm of drug policy. One of the more obvious instances is the DEA's constant, unequivocal declaration that marijuana is not medicine, despite a plethora of studies and anecdotal evidence to the contrary. In past decades, when public support for marijuana law reform was relatively weak, prohibitionists could offer misinformed and patently false claims about cannabis without any major scrutiny. They could also rely on the weight of federal authority to lend credence to their misinformation.

That has all changed now. Well over half of the American public supports marijuana legalization, and several states' experiments with legal pot markets have only caused the plant's poll numbers to rise (the reasons for this are numerous and are probably fodder for another post). Those who support legalizing and regulating cannabis have gotten better at forming evidence-based arguments, and so far, the facts are on their side: science is finally getting around to confirming marijuana's medical usefulness and states that have legalized have largely succeeded in keeping many of pot opponents' worst fears from materializing.

Sessions DOJ doubles down on dubious MJ report.
But true to its past, and especially to its present, the federal government is again demonstrating its belief that its own information matters more than, well, actual information. This time it is in the context of US Attorney General Jeff Sessions's correspondence with governors of four weed-friendly states - Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska - regarding the effectiveness of their legalization programs.

In April the four governors sent a letter to Sessions asking that the feds touch base with their administrations before engaging in any major marijuana enforcement activities. In July Sessions responded to the governors with a letter that questioned the effectiveness of their programs, liberally citing data from a recent report by the Northwest and Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTAs). Among other things, the reports allegedly document legalization-related increases in teenage marijuana use, black-market diversion, and higher rates of marijuana-induced vehicle crashes. (In case you're wondering, HIDTAs are hybrid federal-state drug enforcement organizations that serve under the National Office of Drug Control Policy. They date to the Reagan era - these agencies are not and have never been interested in any kind of drug policy reform).

The problem with the HIDTA reports - as with many other federal reports on marijuana trends - is that they are inaccurate. As they did with a previous HIDTA report, astute observers immediately published critiques that punched holes in the studies' most ominous claims. And on Wednesday a group of Washington state lawmakers (both Dems and Repubs) sent a letter to Sessions disputing every statistical claim made by the US Attorney General in his July letter.

Predictably, a Justice Department official responded to the lawmakers' letter with an email saying that  an "updated HIDTA report" confirms the original report's documentation of "troubling developments" in states with legal weed. True to form, in response to legitimate critiques of its primary data source, the DOJ did not offer other, perhaps more legitimate sources, but merely doubled down on the "updated" version of the same source. Our information is better than yours, still better than yours.

Props to the Washington lawmakers for calling out the skewed HIDTA report and the Justice Department's unquestioning acceptance of it. At the administrative level, the war on drugs has always been an information war. While they may be a relatively new foe for the country at large, purveyors of "Alternative Facts" have been laying siege to the truth about US drug policy for decades.

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