For years, anti-marijuana groups have spun data in an attempt to prove that the sky is falling as a result of progressive cannabis laws in Colorado. The latest example involves a vast exaggeration about the level of stoned driving in the state, complete with an assist from the Denver Post.
Additional characters in the latest episode of this long-running series include Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) and the affiliated Marijuana Accountability Coalition (MAC), a pair of powerful and aggressive organizations that decry greater accessibility to pot, and the Colorado-based Marijuana Industry Group, whose executive director, recent Westword profile subject Kristi Kelly, notes that the manipulation of facts in this area has repercussions that go beyond the state line.
"It's not just Coloradans looking at data to see how the legalization of marijuana has impacted the health and safety of people who live here," Kelly says. "Because Colorado is the oldest and most mature market, our data is monitored pretty closely across the country as well. So it's critical the data gets represented accurately."
Kelly believes the Post did so, more or less, in an August 9 article. She considers its headline ("How Many Coloradans Are Driving High? New Report Offers One Answer") and subhead ("Collecting Data on Drugged Driving Remains a Struggle") to be fair.
Likewise, she has no issues with its lead: "Four years after the legalization of recreational pot sales, state officials are another step closer to determining how the change is affecting the safety of Colorado’s roads — but many obstacles remain."
However, concerns crop up in the second paragraph, which reads: "About 73 percent of some 4,000 drivers charged with driving under the influence in 2016 tested positive for marijuana, according to a new Division of Criminal Justice report. Of those who tested positive, about half of the drivers had more than the legal limit of Delta 9 THC — marijuana’s chief psychoactive compound — in their blood."
These numbers are correct, but they lack the context provided a couple of paragraphs later. There were actually 27,244 court cases involving at least one DUI charge in Colorado circa 2016. Of that total, just 3,946 individuals were screened for marijuana, presumably because law enforcers had reason to believe the drivers in question had partaken. That explains why a significant 2,885 individuals tested positive for cannabinoids. But as noted above, fewer than half of them — 1,369 — showed any evidence of Delta 9 THC, suggesting that a far smaller number were actually impaired.
Here's a Marijuana Industry Group graphic that illustrates this disparity.
Such nuances aren't present in the responses to the piece offered by SAM and MAC. The former tweeted this: "New study found that nearly 73 percent of some 4,000 drivers charged with a DUI in Colorado in 2016 tested positive for marijuana. Absolutely insane." And the latter went into even more cherry-picking detail.
"In one of the most concerning developments to date, a published report by the State of Colorado found that in 2016, about 73 percent of some 4,000 drivers charged with driving under the influence tested positive for marijuana. The report, by the Division of Criminal Justice, also revealed that half of the drivers who tested positive were over the legal limit of THC in their blood. That's the psychoactive compound found in pot. And 53 percent admit they smoked marijuana within two hours of getting behind the wheel."
Also highlighted is the following comment from SAM founder and president Dr. Kevin Sabet, whose Westword Q&A was published in 2017: "I have read thousands of research reports over the last 25 years — and this one is one of the most alarming. To make matters worse, marijuana impairment is most likely underrepresented in data due to the fact that it is so hard to gauge. Other states considering legalization must pump the brakes and take note of such damning reports."
To Kelly, such panic-button pushing is utterly lacking in perspective.
"Of the 27,244 DUIs, the number screened for marijuana is about 13 percent, which is significantly lower than the 73 percent that's being represented," she points out. "When we're talking about people who tested with the presence of Delta 9 THC, that's only about 5 percent. And the DUI statistics for alcohol are ten times what they are for marijuana in terms of incidents in Colorado."
Another Marijuana Industry Group graphic underscores the much greater frequency of positive alcohol tests:
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Kelly stresses that she, too, worries about stoned driving.
In her words, "I'm not trying to say marijuana has no impact on DUIs. It does, and we want people to understand that they need to make good decisions any time they're behind the wheel. But if we're talking about harm, marijuana has a lot less of an effect on DUIs than alcohol does."
She declines to single out SAM and MAC for bad behavior, maintaining that "at the end of the day, it doesn't matter who is misappropriating the information. But as a trade association that is highly affected by the outcomes of these numbers, we want to make sure that the information being picked up in-state and out of state is accurate. And in order to do that, you need to read deeper into the data to understand it. That's responsible."
She adds: "It just doesn't make sense to pick up the flashiest number so you can build a narrative out of it. You need to build a narrative that's accurate."