Diane Rehm has a Bad Day

As many of my faithful readers know, I am an avid NPR listener. One of my favorites has always been the Diane Rehm show. Lately, I was listening and happened to hear her show entitled Trends in Teenage Drug Use, on the recent study by NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse). Her guest was Dr. Nora Volkow, the director of NIDA.

Generally, Diane makes a valiant attempt to provide balanced reporting of her subject. Alas, on this day, from what I could tell, Diane did not show up. The guest was allowed to make a lot of hay, with no adult supervision to be found.

There were so many poor examples of bias on this guest, that I kind of don’t know where to start, so I’ll just jump in. Let’s start with the NIDA study itself. I have searched for the NIDA study which is discussed on the show, but cannot find it on the web. If any readers have access to this, please send me a link. I would love to read the actual study itself instead of relying on what Dr. Volkow says about it. But I’ll start there. The gist of the study is that the following trends exist among teens in the US:

  • Consumption of cannabis (commonly referred to as marijuana) is increasing.
  • Consumption of alcohol is declining.
  • Consumption of prescription drugs is declining.
  • Consumption of nicotine is declining.

Now, first of all, I could have told the NIDA folks that! Cannabis is in the process of exploding in our culture. 20 states have now legalized cannabis, and several more are poised to do so shortly. We are quickly going to be in a situation where the majority of the US states have legalized cannabis.

Given that, yes, of course cannabis consumption is increasing in our culture. That’s not just happening among teens, though. It is happening across all age groups other than small children (even some of whom are consuming cannabinoids to treat some severe medical problems: more on this later).

As so well documented by Martin Lee in his excellent book Smoke Signals, in jurisdiction after jurisdiction in which cannabis becomes legal, the experience is very consistent: when the population switches to cannabis, the consumption of other inebriants drops dramatically.

Now, you may be asking, why is that good news? Simple. Cannabis is by far the least dangerous and least harmful inebriant we have access to in our culture. Far safer than either alcohol or nicotine. The dirty little secret among the drug folks is that alcohol and nicotine are both far more dangerous than either opiates or cocaine in terms of long term health effects! But cannabis is the benchmark for a safe inebriant. It has no fatal overdose level. No one has ever been killed as a result of overdosing on cannabis.

Likewise, the long-term effects of cannabis use are arguably relatively benign, especially compared to other inebriants.

Which gets back to Diane’s guest, Dr. Volkow, who spent copious amounts of time decrying the increase in cannabis use among teens, while never even mentioning the decline in the other inebriants. And Diane let her get away with it! What about discussing comparative risk? Dr. Volkow argued that long term cannabis use is associated with lower IQ in teens. (I seriously doubt the credibility of that study, as indicated by my own local NPR station’s coverage of it: Another item which Dr. Volkow conveniently failed to mention.) Even then, what about the effect on IQ, cognitive function, etc., of long term alcohol use among teens (which is depressingly common in our culture)?

Again, comparative risk. Compared to alcohol and nicotine, cannabis is far less dangerous, in so many ways.

Take driving. In many areas of the world where cannabis has become legal, the rate of traffic fatalities declined. (Yes you are safer driving high on pot, than you are driving drunk. No kidding. Arguably, you may be safer driving slightly high than you are driving straight. More on that later as well.)

Another one: Domestic violence. Yeah, no kidding. Folks get along better and quit fighting so much when they switch from alcohol (which ignites and inflames violent tendencies) to cannabis (which calms them down).

Another one: Crime. Yes, oddly, the folks who opposed legalizing cannabis did so partially on the basis of an argument that cannabis use would cause crime to increase. Not so. All forms of violent crime decline when cannabis becomes legal in a particular area.

You get the idea: Alcohol is much worse for you and for society than cannabis. Yes, that should be no surprise. Dr. Joyclyn Elders (former Surgeon General under President Clinton) knew that and said so on the record way back in the 1990’s. There have been so many studies on that score that it should be no longer controversial at all.

Ok, I’ll hit you with one more example of Dr. Volkow’s bias and then we’ll call it good: The idea that cannabis of today is so much worse for you, because it’s so much stronger.

This one is just patently ridiculous. Anyone who has tried cannabis knows how silly this is. Cannabis simply does not work that way.

Technically, cannabis is a bi-phasic drug. That means it has two distinctly different effects: One at a low dose, and one at a high dose. It is similar in this respect to nicotine. We don’t usually deal with folks who overdose on nicotine, though. (And trust me, that ain’t pretty!)

At low doses, THC produces the following effects:

  • Euphoria
  • Increased appetite
  • Increased sex drive
  • Senses are more pronounced
  • Reaction time is faster
  • All cognitive functions are better, other than the time sense
  • Increased energy

When someone overdoses on THC, the effects are quite different:

  • Severe anxiety
  • Vertigo
  • Nausea
  • Passing out

Unlike nicotine (which can absolutely kill you if you overdose), THC will not kill you at any dose. However, anyone who has experienced a THC overdose (and this is very common early in someone’s consumption of the drug) will tell you how unpleasant a THC overdose is. Certainly, no one in their right mind would intentionally overdose on THC. It is simply too unpleasant.

Which gets back to the idea that it is somehow evil and bad that folks selectively bred cannabis to produce larger amounts of relevant cannabinoids (one of which is THC). Nonsense. That simply means that you would need to consume less cannabis to produce an appropriate dose. That does not mean (as Dr. Volkow obviously implied) that the new stuff will blast you into the stratosphere. Cannabis is self-regulating in that manner, which may be one of the reasons it is so much safer than alcohol. Alcohol has only one effect, and that effect continues to operate, quite well thank you very much, until you succumb to the sedating effects and simply pass out.

I did attempt to post these comments on Diane’s website, but annoyingly, she decided to moderate me. So here you go, Diane. I will not be silent.

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