“Marijuana devastated Colorado. Don’t legalize it nationally,” is the linkbaity headline of a recent marijuana editorial, published on Aug. 7 in USA Today.
The faulty marijuana editorial was penned in apparent response to Sen. Cory Booker’s proposal to legalize marijuana via Congress. The piece puzzled many, including some Coloradans.
Isn’t Denver booming? Aren’t marijuana sales taxes funding college scholarships and allowing towns to build new civic centers? Didn’t Colorado just top more than $1.3 billion in legal marijuana sales? Aren’t there 18,000 new jobs in Colorado thanks to the marijuana industry?
Subsequently reprinted in parent company Gannett’s other properties from Detroit to Nashville, and elsewhere in the U.S., the item has gone bona fide viral, with more than 106,000 Facebook shares within a few days’ time.
This was the screed anti-legalization sympathizers have been waiting for. Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy, the organization that benefited from pharmaceutical industry cash to defeat that state’s legalization measure last fall, and Smart Approaches to Marijuana, the anti-marijuana advocacy group chaired by a former staffer in the Office for National Drug Control Policy, all responded with predictable cheers.
As they should, since the marijuana editorial parroted many of the same cherrypicked data points they’ve been repeating for months, which form the intellectual foundation (such as it is) for supporting marijuana prohibition.
The author of this hot content is one Jeff Hunt. Hunt is the vice president of public policy at Colorado Christian University in Lakewood, Colorado, where Hunt chairs the “Centennial Institute,” the school’s official think tank. What Sen. Booker is proposing to do, Hunt writes, is to visit upon the entire United States the ravages that marijuana legalization has wreaked on Colorado since voters legalized the drug in 2012.
The carnage includes the highest marijuana use rate among youth in the U.S.; an increase in marijuana-related traffic deaths and emergency room visits; an increase in marijuana-related arrests, particularly of black and Latino youth; and no perceptible benefit in the way of jobs or sales taxes.
“We’ve seen the effects in our neighborhoods in Colorado, and this is nothing we wish upon the nation,” Hunt summarizes. It’s another “sad moment in our nation’s embrace of a drug that will have generational consequences.”
Hunt’s marijuana editorial points are lifted straight from what’s become the Bible for marijuana prohibitionists: A 2016 report from the Rocky Mountain High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. The nation’s many HIDTAs, remember, are part of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which itself is prohibited by Congress from advocating for marijuana legalization.
Hmm. That smells like a bias. In this case, the bias comes at the expense of…well, everything.
As Forbes and Reason.com columnist Jacob Sullum has pointed out, HIDTA reports overwhelm the reader with charts and data that make legalization look like an apocalypse — and bury caveats needed to accurately interpret the data, such as “inferences concerning trends…should not be made” and “that does not necessarily prove that marijuana was the cause of the incident,” deep in tiny footnotes.
According to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, the HIDTA report presents “incomplete and unreliable data,” which — along with its institutional bias — is why it’s become the document of choice for Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his fellow travelers.
Hunt also produces a quote from Harry Bull, the superintendent of the Cherry Creek School District: “So far, the only thing that the legalization of marijuana has brought to our schools has been marijuana,” says Bull, who has been seeding this soundbite in the media since at least early 2016.
Like Hunt, Bull is being disingenuous in several ways. Several reviews have found that marijuana use among teens in Colorado has either remained flat or dropped since legalization. And under state law, the first $40 million worth of marijuana sales taxes go to capital improvements in impoverished and rural school districts. Cherry Creek School District is in Arapahoe County, which encompasses Aurora, Littleton, and other well-off communities in suburbs east of Denver. Fewer than six percent of people there live below the poverty line, so Cherry Creek doesn’t qualify as impoverished. At all.
But what do other commentators without institutional biases think?
“Our conclusion is that state marijuana legalizations have had minimal effect on marijuana use and related outcomes,” wrote scholars from the libertarian Cato Institute — the think tank funded by one of the Koch Brothers — in their review of legalization’s impacts published last fall. “The absence of significant adverse consequences is especially striking given the sometimes dire predictions made by legalization opponents.”
Thing is, Hunt has been banging this exact same drum for months — using almost the exact same language. “The legalization of marijuana has devastated Colorado,” Hunt wrote in a January 11 Facebook post, in which he went on to repeat (verbatim) all the greatest hits from the HIDTA report.
Apparently, Hunt waited until Booker introduced his legislation, and then used that as his news hook when shopping his op-ed around to anyone who would published it. Among the hopeful homes was Denver’s alt-weekly, Westword. Westword declined Hunt’s offer, and instead published a response: “Dear USA Today: Marijuana Hasn't Devastated Colorado,” the paper wrote. (The paper sought Hunt’s input, but for some reason, Hunt was nowhere to be found.)
So why did USA Today take a bite at this stale old garbageburger? The short answer, judging by other recent contributions, is that they’ll publish almost anything if it generates web traffic.
Most of the comments on Hunt’s marijuana editorial — and on his Facebook page — repeat many of the same facts we’ve asserted above. It’s not honest. It’s not convincing. It’s not even fresh or interesting. It’s just an inflammatory polemic! But you clicked on it, whether it was to ponder or to vent. We all did. We’ve all been played — you, me, USA Today, and Jeff Hunt.