Medical marijuana patient busted for driving under the influence makes TV news: Mason Tvert weighs in on sensationalistic coverage

TV-news coverage of medical marijuana often veers toward the sensational -- and a story on Channel 4 serves as a perfect example.

Last night, the station reported that two people in Boulder, Raghv Sharma and Benjamin Gennis, were busted for driving under the influence of marijuana, with Sharma specifically noting that he has a medical marijuana certificate.

Waiting for more revelations? There aren't any -- which marijuana advocate Mason Tvert sees as a problem.

Tvert doesn't weigh in on the specifics of the events, which is credited to reporter Shaun Boyd, or the case as a whole. But he's definitely watched stations spend airtime on marijuana-related stories when similar incidents that don't involve weed go uncovered.

"It's like the fact that they'll report that a dispensary was robbed when liquor stores and banks get robbed all the time and aren't reported on," he says. "They think, 'This is new' -- and whenever something's new and seemingly unfamiliar, then it seems like something that should be reported, or something we should worry about."

Of course, arrests for driving under the influence of liquid intoxicants is the opposite of new -- which is why they're seldom reported unless death or disfigurement are involved. Case in point: A search of Denver Police Department arrest data from Monday (it's accessible by clicking here) turned up three alcohol-related DUIs on that day alone, none of which garnered any media coverage that I caught.

The Channel 4 story suggests there's a misconception that driving after smoking medical marijuana is safe -- an incredibly suspect assertion. Yet arrests for driving under the influence of marijuana are presumably much rarer than those involving liquor, since we seldom hear about them anyplace, including Boulder, where pot smoking isn't exactly an uncommon occurrence.

Indeed, it's arguably more newsworthy to report that there are so few marijuana-related driving citations issued in the town near the Flatirons than that two took place in the area over a relatively short period of time.

Because one of Tvert's themes is the relative safety of marijuana in comparison with alcohol, it's no surprise that he comes down on the side of pot as applied to driving.

"There's a great deal of evidence showing that using marijuana and driving isn't nearly the problem that using alcohol and driving is," he says. "But if a driver is impaired, it just goes to show that there are already laws in place that prohibit driving under the influence of marijuana -- and they'll continue to be in place in the future." Hence, no changes in ordinances would be necessary should marijuana become legal for all adults, as Tvert hopes will happen in the future, and not just for card-carrying patients.

Even Tvert says driving while using marijuana should be discouraged. He just doesn't think busts with no extenuating circumstances deserve any more coverage than an equivalent arrest involving beer or wine.

And to hell with the shock of the new.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts