It's addictive. It causes crime. It leads to hard drugs. These are a few of the myths generated by the U.S. government in its never-ending war on the cannabis plant and repeated for decades by uncritical elements of the media.
The myths come and go, according to the needs of the day. Thus, when marijuana began to gain popularity as a medicine in the 1970s and 1980s, a new myth was hatched: any benefit perceived by patients is merely a "placebo" effect.
So it was big news when a myth-free report was issued March 17 by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), a division of the National Academy of Sciences. The report's findings: marijuana is not addictive. It does not lead to hard drugs. And lo and behold: cannabinoids, the active chemical compounds in natural marijuana, "appear to hold potential for treating pain, chemotherapy- induced nausea and vomiting, and the poor appetite and wasting caused by AIDS or advanced cancer."
Many reports had touted marijuana's medical value before; now the outcast herb had been validated once again by a formal authority. On March 18, national headlines trumpeted the news: "Pot Has Uses as Medicine, U.S. Panel Says," "U.S. Panel Sees Potential for Medical Marijuana," "Government Study of Marijuana Sees Medical Benefits." In subheads and on the jump came the report's strongly worded caveat: smoking is not an ideal delivery method, for marijuana or any substance.
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This was a remarkable piece of good publicity for a blacklisted drug. And while the IOM report was generally positive, the coverage grew ever more glowing in the hands of a clever spinmeister, Chuck Thomas, the director of communications for the Washington, D.C.based Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). Indeed, Thomas, 29, was quoted on page one of several stories that day. Typical is the quote he gave to The Washington Post: "This report . . . clearly shows that there is scientific evidence that marijuana has bona fide therapeutic effects for some patients."
Marijuana is medicine? Amazingly, that was the complete opposite of the spin Clinton drug czar Barry McCaffrey put on the report, which he commissioned in the wake of the 1996 pro-marijuana referendum in California apparently in hopes of generating bad publicity for the pesky drug. His official response to the report, in four words: "More research is needed."
Bob Weiner, McCaffrey's spokesman at the Office of National Drug Control Policy, seizes the opportunity to point out that the advocates and the media are misleading the public when they say marijuana is medicine. "That's not what the report said!" cries Weiner. "It said that smoked marijuana is dangerous and that there is no future for smoked marijuana!"
The day the IOM report was released in Washington, McCaffrey held a news conference in Los Angeles at which he downplayed the value of smoked marijuana, telling reporters that in the future, you won't "find someone with prostate cancer with a 'blunt' stuck in his face." Substituting his message for Thomas's, he used the conference to promote Marinol, a cannabinoid pill that is already on the market, and to call on drug companies to back new means of delivering cannabinoids, such as inhalers, patches, and suppositories.
In many stories, Thomas's spin came first; McCaffrey's did not turn up until later. That might have been because the drug czar was in L.A., not D.C., or it might have been because the IOM report explicitly contradicted his 1996 claim that there is not "a shred of evidence that smoked marijuana is useful or needed." That blooper was broadcast last week in the lead of a skeptical story on ABCNews.com, as well as in the conservative New York Post. And while the drug czar appeared to be publicly endorsing the IOM report, the advocates of medical marijuana were busy painting a different picture.
"This report is General McCaffrey's worst nightmare," one advocate told the Boston Globe. "This report has proved McCaffrey wrong," another told The New York Times. "McCaffrey really hates this report," Thomas explains, "but he'll say he likes it, so people won't say he's been blown out of the water."
So how did the advocates steal the narrative from the drug czar? It didn't hurt that MPP got in at the ground level. "We worked on the IOM project since it was first announced," says Thomas, "giving them information, recommending experts, bringing patients to their hearings."
Then last month, MPP teamed up with the New Yorkbased Lindesmith Center and the Santa Monicabased Americans for Medical Rights, all three of which are funded in part by financier George Soros. Members of the three drug-reform groups began talking on conference calls, plotting a media strategy that would take advantage of the report's imminent release. Between them, they hired two PR firms, sent out press kits, and lined up patients who smoke marijuana to be interviewed. They contacted reporters likely to cover the story and encouraged them to visit an archive of scientific information posted at www.medmjscience.org.
"We were surprised that reporters knew as little as they did," says Michael Shellenberger, director of the San Franciscobased PR firm Communication Works. "For most reporters, the history of medical marijuana began in 1996. Most of them had never heard of the Shafer Commission [which recommended that Nixon decriminalize marijuana in 1972], and most didn't know that the Chinese had been using marijuana for thousands of years."
Although Thomas believed the report's conclusions would be positive, he did not know exactly what it would say. So it was a lucky break for him when on March 16, the day before the news broke, "a sympathetic reporter was kind enough to give us an embargoed copy." MPP's local PR firm, Rabinowitz Media Strategies, had booked Thomas to be interviewed on CNN that day, and having the report in advance gave him the advantage of being able to comment on point. He began telling reporters he was ready to discuss the report before the embargo was lifted on March 17.
But when the IOM learned that MPP had an advance copy, spokesman Dan Quinn called Thomas and beseeched him not to break the embargo, lest other news outlets decide to do so as well. (For example, The New York Times has a policy of not breaking embargoes unless someone else does it first.)
Thomas had been planning to hold a news conference outside the National Academy of Sciences on March 17, immediately following the release of the report that would take place inside. Thus, recognizing that having the report gave him a bargaining chip, he agreed not to break the embargo, in exchange for a promise that the IOM would not break up his news conference.
The question we normally ask about a drug is whether it's safe and effective. And while the IOM report was unequivocal in its finding that marijuana works for some patients, it carefully hedged the issue of health risks. By calling marijuana smoke a risk factor for cancer and lung damage, it gave the government one last myth to work with: the idea that marijuana is dangerous.
If McCaffrey's strategy was to play up the harmful effects of smoking, it definitely worked. In her story on March 18, New York Times reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg wrote that marijuana smoke "can cause cancer, lung damage and complications during pregnancy." In that and subsequent stories, the Times loosely used the word "toxic" to describe pot smoke. Obviously, there is some risk in smoking burning leaves, but marijuana is relatively safe, as drugs go, according to the report. And the IOM found no proof that it causes cancer.
Perhaps the biggest wild card was where the editorials would come down on the implications of the report for government policy. In what Americans for Medical Rights spokesman Dave Fratello calls "the most significant policy outgrowth of this entire report," the IOM recommended that the government begin limited experiments to provide medical marijuana to patients who need it.
It's too early to tell, but so far, no major paper has defended McCaffrey's wait-and-see attitude. First to depart from the status quo were New York Newsday, the Chicago Tribune, and the Chicago Sun-Times, which came out in support of medical marijuana on March 19. The Sun-Times mocked the drug czar as apparently "in search of a yes man," while the Tribune called for "courageous political leadership."
On March 20, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Dayton Daily News, and the Louisville Courier-Journal chimed in on the call for a change. Sample quotes: Though McCaffrey "appears likely to shelve the study," his "exaggerated fears and inflexible views should not trump the legitimate needs of suffering people." On March 22, the Atlanta Journal opined, "This report gives the Clinton administration a strong scientific basis to abandon its illogical policy."
Meanwhile, the editorial writers in New York, Washington, and L.A. have been silent. What are they waiting for? Perhaps in a situation like this, the truth can come only from a conservative and former medical marijuana user like Richard Brookhiser. In a March 22 New York Times op-ed, Brookhiser wrote, "For obvious reasons, there has been no leadership on this issue from President Clinton, who began his career of evasion at the national level by telling us he didn't inhale."
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