Nine states will decide on Tuesday whether to legalize cannabis for medical or recreational use, joining 25 other states and Washington, DC that already have laws on the books.
One would think that at this point the national mainstream media would understand the political and social weight of the issue and refrain from silly weed jokes. But no.
On Monday morning, the eve of Election Day, “Today Show” hosts Matt Lauer and Al Roker couldn’t resist. After a report from field reporter Gadi Schwartz, Lauer chortled that the report was “right out of a Cheech and Chong movie.” And Roker chimed in, joking “I see a shortage of Cheetos.”
International research has shown cannabis can alleviate symptoms of serious and painful disease and can be a much safer alternative to opioids. Millions could benefit and patients’ quality of life can be vastly improved, so cannabis is clearly no laughing matter. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, neurosurgeon and CNN’s chief medical correspondent, is one of the advocates for coming to patients assistance with marijuana.
And “Today” is not the only national news source airing alarming reports so close to the election. Over the weekend, CBS News aired a report warning about “Big Marijuana,” comparing the industry to “Big Tobacco.”
“It’s disappointing for such an influential media outlet to air ‘Reefer Madness’ scare tactics and Cheech and Chong jokes about such an important issue,” said Tom Angell of Marijuana Majority, a pro-legalization group. “The fact is, legalization is working very well in Colorado and other places that have ended prohibition. That’s why so many states are poised to join in on Election Day.
“No matter how many munchies jokes Al Roker wants to make, there’s absolutely nothing funny about the fact that there’s still more than one marijuana arrest every minute in this country. I’m confident that voters will consider this issue a lot more seriously at the ballot box tomorrow than the ‘TODAY Show’ hosts did on air this morning,” Angell added.
Marijuana legalization, indeed, is a complex issue requiring voters to study the individual initiatives on the ballot. One thing is for certain: It’s not funny.
In Schwartz’s report, he referenced some concerns surrounding legalization: increased crime, traffic fatalities and ER visits among them.
Jeffrey Miron, director of economic studies at the Cato Institute and the director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Economics at Harvard University, says the fears are unsubstantiated.
“Opponents nevertheless make strong claims about adverse consequences from existing and proposed legalization,” Miron said “We argue, based on the evidence, that such claims are exaggerated, misleading, or outright false.”
Let’s examine the big issues in Schwartz’s election-eve report on the “Today Show”:
Fact: Legalization does not increase in crime rates
According to a Cato Institute report, states with recreational marijuana laws have experienced “large declines in arrest rates for drug offenses and no changes in violent and property crime rates.” The Drug War, according to Cato, consumes significant resources and diverts police and judicial attention away from more serious crimes, so liberalizing marijuana may help to reduce other crime.
Fact: Marijuana-related traffic fatalities do not rise
The four states with full legalization — Colorado, Washington, Alaska, and Oregon — “have seen no significant change in fatal traffic crash rates or traffic fatalities post-legalization,” Miron reports.
Research by the Washington Post‘s Radley Balko, an author on drug policy, claims that “highway fatalities in Colorado are at near-historic lows” in the wake of legalization. Some data suggests an uptick in highway deaths, but as Miron points out:
“Colorado has seen a rise in marijuana-related traffic fatalities, but this likely reflects increased testing for, or labeling of, the presence of marijuana in crash victims – rather than increased accidents caused by marijuana use – because declines in other drug-related traffic fatalities have offset those related to marijuana, resulting in no net change in drug-related traffic fatalities.”
Fact: Calls to poison control are up, but not by much
Yes, since Colorado legalized marijuana, visits to the ER have increased. But the number of incidents remain comparatively low. According to available data, 16 children age nine and younger went to the ER for marijuana in 2015. Marijuana-related poison-control calls for children nine and younger make up about two out of every 1,000 calls, according to one study.
“Pharmaceuticals and household products still account for most toddler exposures because they are much more common and available in the household,” the study revealed.
Fact: California ads will not be geared toward children
Proposition 64 clearly limits ads in broadcast, cable, radio, print and digital mediums to placements where at least 71.6 percent of the audience is reasonably expected to be at least 21 based on reliable, up-to-date audience data.
The California initiative specifically prohibits advertising or marketing marijuana in a “manner intended to encourage people under 21 to consume marijuana.” It also bans symbols, language, music, gestures, cartoon characters or other content known to appeal primarily to people under 21.
Further, the law prohibits any advertising sign within 1,000 feet of a day care center, K-12 school, playground or youth center.
Misleading the electorate
In the NBC report, there is a mention of a letter from Denver District Attorney Mitchell R. Morrissey insinuating that his city has seen crime skyrocket because of legalization.
The analysis done by the Cato Institute found little evidence that legalization can be blamed for increasing (or decreasing) crime rates.
John Hudak, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Brookings Institute, said much of the information being disseminated is misleading. “If you have to rely on false data or lies, you’re probably not winning the argument,” said Hudak, who is neutral on legalization.
“The district attorney’s letter shows a pretty strategic use of data that ends up being insulting to the public,” Hudak charged.
The will of the people
Polling shows that voters in the five states deciding on recreational marijuana are leaning toward legalization. If all the measures passed, marijuana would be legal for 25 percent of the country’s population, up from where it is currently, at five percent.
According to a recent Gallup poll, support for legal cannabis is at 60 percent — the highest level recorded by the polling group in nearly 50 years.
It is about time for mainstream media to come to terms with the facts.