Really Bad Journalism

Really Bad Journalism 071311

A Fringe Analtainment


It isn’t hard to find bad reporting or bad news writing, indeed, it is a staple in some papers, but while bad journalism is just misinformation, some is purposefully intended to make you less informed.


A case in point is an LA Times article HERE.  


The article bears the title “Stoned driving is uncharted territory”.  From the start, that is untrue.  There have been studies on marijuana and driving for at least 30 years.  However, let’s let the title stand as the thesis sentence it is supposed to be and assume the article talks about driving and cannabis.


The piece bears this lead:

“Experts say they don't know what level of marijuana impairs a driver, but statistics show that fatal crashes involving drugged drivers have jumped. Law enforcement puts much of the blame on the growth of medical marijuana use.”


This introduction gives clues to the poor logic the piece will use.  It states that experts don’t know what level of marijuana impairs a driver.  Then, hanging the next phrase on the word “but” the authors pull a switch on us.  They tell us “fatal crashes involving drugged drivers have jumped”.  Let’s forget for a moment that this non-statistical statistic fails to indicate where the numbers come from and what constitutes a “jump”.  The big logical failure of the statement is that it now mixes in the reader’s mind marijuana with all other drugs.  Drugged drivers have jumped.  However, other drugs would include opiates and other pain killers, psychotropic drugs, meth, and a host of things which get a person thoroughly knackered and unfit to drive.  Only cannabis is mentioned; we get the connection.


The article attempts to smear marijuana and oxycodone together further on when it tells of a tragedy involving an auto accident with the driver at fault where a “test showed he had pot, as well as other drugs, in his blood.”  The reader is supposed to assume that it was the cannabis, and not the “other drugs” which caused him to swerve from the road and strike a jogger. 


Next, the article tries to create a mental bridge between cannabis and traffic accidents. 

“16.3% of all drivers nationwide at night were on various legal and illegal impairing drugs, half them high on marijuana.”  The article doesn’t mention what the other drugs were; in the reader’s mind “marijuana” is highlighted.


It summons death:

“In California alone, nearly 1,000 deaths and injuries each year are blamed directly on drugged drivers, according to CHP data, and law enforcement puts much of the blame on the rapid growth of medical marijuana use in the last decade.”


First off, we have to wonder how many people were killed?  The number “1, 000 people killed or injured” allows most readers to imagine 1,000 coffins sprouting from drugs (which we know means marijuana) but far more people are injured than killed.  With over 23 million registered drivers in California, many of whom drive 300 miles a week or more (a 25 mile commute), meaning literally billions of driver miles a year, we can see that being on the road is remarkably safe.


Further, to be clear, cops are not pharmacists, they are not doctors, and in general, all they know about drugs they get in “after school special” type trainings.  Many cops and the CHP in particular have a CULTURAL BIAS which precludes them from expertise. 


California’s number of fatalities in 2009, the most current year available, was about 3000 people, down from previous years and a typical average of 4000 people annually.  Of those, most were killed by alcohol, about 31%.  The next most significant factors are driver distraction, mostly eating, driving while tired and cell phone use but also things like putting on makeup, arguing, looking at the GPS or using the CD player, heart attacks, bee stings and so on.  Next is age: the old are terrible drivers as are the young.  Well down the list of dangerous drivers are those high on cannabis.  Of course, this information is not included in the article.  Still, to be on the safe side, if you’re an old codger and you’re driving stoned, leave the CD player alone and don’t argue with your wife.  The more factors you collect, the more likely you are to crash.


To understand what the statistics are supposed to mean, it’s also important to understand how law enforcement gathers statistics.  If there is a drug test, a box is checked for every drug, including alcohol, indicated.  When the database is plumbed, it is possible to call up all the drivers who had cannabis in their blood, even though some will have other, more potent drugs in their system as well.


Well into the article the issue of the “testing” saw some light.  Cannabis metabolites remain in fat cells in the body and can be read for up to 30 days.  On the other hand, many more dangerous drugs are cleaned from the system in just a few days.  Saying someone “tested positive” for cannabis is not at all the same as saying they were intoxicated. 


The article acknowledges that after it’s already created the connection in the reader’s mind.  Still, it says:

“Even the most cautious approach of zero tolerance is fraught with complex medical issues about whether residual low levels of marijuana can impair a driver days after the drug is smoked. Marijuana advocates say some state and federal officials are trying to make it impossible for individuals to use marijuana and drive legally for days or weeks afterward.”


The article quotes federal bureaucrats who, in spite of literally tens of millions of dollars spent in federal studies, still don’t know how to tell if a driver is impaired by cannabis or not.  More research is needed.

“A $6-million study in Virginia Beach, Va., is attempting to remove any doubt that users of pot and other drugs are more likely to crash. Teams of federal researchers go to accident scenes and ask drivers to voluntarily provide samples of their blood. They later return to the same location, at the same time and on the same day of the week, asking two random motorists not involved in crashes for a blood sample.”


There have already been studies, many of which demonstrate that cannabis impairs driving.  However, cannabis, particularly in frequent users, doesn’t typically impair judgment as alcohol and opiate drugs do, so cannabis impaired drivers tend to slow down and be more cautious.  The article states that the level of impairment, in the legal sense, is the issue:

“If police suspect a driver is stoned, they now administer a lengthy 12-point examination. The driver must walk a straight line and stand on one leg, estimate the passage of 30 seconds and have pupils, blood pressure and pulse checked.”


At the present time, the evidence to suggest an involvement of cannabis in road crashes is scientifically unproven.

To date ..., seven studies using culpability analysis have been reported, involving a total of 7,934 drivers. Alcohol was detected as the only drug in 1,785 drivers, and together with cannabis in 390 drivers. Cannabis was detected in 684 drivers, and in 294 of these it was the only drug detected.

... The results to date of crash culpability studies have failed to demonstrate that drivers with cannabinoids in the blood are significantly more likely than drug-free drivers to be culpable in road crashes. … [In] cases in which THC was the only drug present were analyzed, the culpability ratio was found to be not significantly different from the no-drug group.”


REFERENCE: G. Chesher and M. Longo. 2002. Cannabis and alcohol in motor vehicle accidents. In: F. Grotenhermen and E. Russo (Eds.) Cannabis and Cannabinoids: Pharmacology, Toxicology, and Therapeutic Potential. New York: Haworth Press. Pp. 313-323.


While some are comfortable that cops can make an objective determination weather a subject’s reactions are from cannabis use, or from being hauled from their car and given a lengthy 12 point exam by a cop, most people, and certainly most medical cannabis users, are not.  The story about the driver who struck the jogger mentioned a “green coat on his tongue” as an indication of cannabis use.  Such a green coat does exist, on the tongues of those who drink cheap crème’ de menthe, but not cannabis users.  They don’t typically lick the pot, so to speak. 


To credit the LA Times article, it ends with some input from the other side of the issue.  For example, at the end of the article they return to the auto accident where the driver who had tested positive for cannabis (and other drugs) was convicted.  The man’s attorney reports “his client was not impaired and that allegations about his green tongue were ridiculous. Flores' (the driver) guilty plea was prompted by other legal issues, including a prior conviction for a drunk accident that caused an injury”.  In short the case the author chose as a foundation for the article isn’t really an example of anything, except how poor journalism will use “facts” to influence readers.


The Prospect does not intend to suggest that using cannabis doesn’t impact a driver’s ability. If nothing else, some users when driving stoned might suddenly swerve to pull into a donut shop or pizza parlor.   We encourage readers not to drive stoned, or tired, or to eat while they drive or use a cell phone.


But we also encourage readers to be critical when they read an article, in the Prospect, or anywhere.  It reminds us of Jefferson’s famous quote: The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.

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