Counting the errors in 9News's "Pot is number-one Denver drug" story

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"For the first time in years, people in Denver are abusing marijuana more than any other drug," trumpeted a January 8 Channel 9 investigative story on citywide drug stats.

That's quite the announcement. Too bad the story itself is filled with more useless junk than a baggie of ditch weed.

The 9News story is based on a new draft report issued by the Denver Office of Drug Strategy titled "Denver Substance Abuse Trends." But "Channel 9 didn't quite get all of the info correct," says Revekka Balancier, communications director for Denver's Department of Human Services, speaking about the report. And that's putting it nicely.

For one thing, says Balancier, "[Marijuana] is not the number-one most abused substance in Denver." Alcohol is still holds that spot according to data used in the report. When looking at Denverites admitted to substance-abuse treatment centers, for example, marijuana abuse is popping up more, with 1,183 people entering such programs in 2008 reporting marijuana abuse, compared to 845 people reporting abuse of the number-two illegal drug, cocaine. But booze still takes the cake, with 1,430 Denver folks being admitted to centers for alcohol abuse that year.

Furthermore, notes Balancier, if you look at drug-related hospital discharges in Denver, marijuana is still trailing cocaine -- and both are way behind alcohol.

Channel 9 also claimed that the commission behind the report blamed the apparent upswing in marijuana abuse "on the new marijuana laws statewide" -- but Balancier is adamant that no one made such a claim.

Yes, the report does note that Denver street workers "report that the large influx of medical marijuana dispensaries are contributing to the quality, availability and use of marijuana among the 'street' clientele they serve." But Balancier points out there's no way to correlate marijuana abuse and medical marijuana or the recent proliferation of dispensaries. In fact, using the available data it's just as easy to suggest medical marijuana dispensaries are having the opposite effect.

The report notes that in the first half of 2009, marijuana-related treatment admissions dropped slightly from the previous year. Since Denver's dispensary scene didn't start blossoming until early 2009, one may want to posit that medical marijuana is decreasing marijuana abuse.

Of course, such a claim would be real stretch given the minimal data available. Though considering 9News' track record, it's a story they might just be willing to consider.

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