CNN Report Misleads Readers by Failing to Provide Context for Cannabis Use Disorder

In a March 19 story, “Study raises questions about the risk of using medical marijuana for mood and anxiety disorders,” CNN spends the bulk of the article outlining the alleged risks of cannabis use disorder and the supposed dangers of medical cannabis use by patients with mood and anxiety disorders uncovered by researchers at the Harvard Medical School/Massachusetts General Hospital with the Center for Addiction Medicine. But the report buries a key finding: those who participated in the study experienced “greater well-being” and “improvement in insomnia.”

Presence of bias:

Structural bias occurs in two ways: when the organization itself is bias toward a topic or issue or when the story is set up in a way that buries other important facts. The latter is especially harmful since 60% of people who share a story on social media do so without reading past the headline, according to a 2019 Columbia University study. We can extrapolate from the study that the same percentage probably doesn’t even read the whole article themselves and their opinions are based on just the headline. We at Ganjapreneur see it in our social media comments, too – too often someone comments with a question that is actually addressed in the story.

The study CNN reports on followed 269 adults from the Boston area with an average age of 37 who wanted to obtain medical cannabis cards, the participants were divided into two groups: one of which was allowed to get the cards immediately and begin using medical cannabis while the other group served as a control and waited 12 weeks before obtaining cards.

“All participants were able to choose their choice and dose of cannabis products from a dispensary as well as frequency of use. They could also continue their usual medical or psychiatric care. People who obtained cards immediately were twice as likely to develop cannabis use disorder, the study found. Ten percent had developed the disorder by week 12, and that figure rose to 20% if they were using marijuana for anxiety or depression.” – CNN, “Study raises questions about the risk of using medical marijuana for mood and anxiety disorders,” Mar. 19, 2022

Okay, now that sounds pretty damning but let’s provide some context since CNN isn’t defining their terms here. The DSM-5 outlines cannabis use disorder as requiring: “Use of cannabis for at least a one-year period, with the presence of at least two of the following symptoms, accompanied by significant impairment of functioning and distress.

There are 10 other qualifying symptoms associated with the disorder:

  • Difficulty containing use of cannabis- the drug is used in larger amounts and over a longer period than intended.
  • Repeated failed efforts to discontinue or reduce the amount of cannabis that is used
  • An inordinate amount of time is occupied acquiring, using, or recovering from the effects of cannabis.
  • Cravings or desires to use cannabis. This can include intrusive thoughts and images, and dreams about cannabis, or olfactory perceptions of the smell of cannabis, due to preoccupation with cannabis.
  • Continued use of cannabis despite adverse consequences from its use, such as criminal charges, ultimatums of abandonment from spouse/partner/friends, and poor productivity.
  • Other important activities in life, such as work, school, hygiene, and responsibility to family and friends are superseded by the desire to use cannabis.
    Cannabis is used in contexts that are potentially dangerous, such as operating a motor vehicle.
  • Use of cannabis continues despite awareness of physical or psychological problems attributed to use- e.g., anergia, amotivation, chronic cough.
    Tolerance to Cannabis, as defined by progressively larger amounts of cannabis are needed to obtain the psychoactive effect experienced when use first commenced, or, noticeably reduced effect of use of the same amount of cannabis
  • Withdrawal, defined as the typical withdrawal syndrome associate with cannabis, or cannabis or a similar substance is used to prevent withdrawal symptoms.

What CNN fails to provide is the context for the diagnosis of cannabis use disorder in the cohort – and let’s be real here, some of these are completely subjective. Dreams about cannabis? Does that mean I have a grief disorder because I often dream about my dead cat? Tolerance? That’s going to happen with any substance – I have a tolerance to caffeine, does that mean I have a caffeine use disorder?

Look, I’m not trying to go on a diatribe here about cannabis use disorder, I am not a physician and I’m not trying to play one, but CNN should have dug deeper into what symptoms the study participants reported to provide context and avoid context bias.

Adjective bias is also apparent in the report, wherein the second graph contains the word “weed” twice and makes sure to call cannabis use disorder “marijuana use disorder” and the author regularly uses “marijuana” when cannabis would be sufficient.

The accompanying video, which has really nothing to do with the study, also uses the word “pot” despite having an overall positive message pertaining to medical cannabis use. This could be considered photographic bias since the video is an old upload, plugged in just because it has to do with medical cannabis but not the study itself – it doesn’t really offer anything to the narrative.

How to remedy:

Oh, CNN, you’re quickly going to get a broad structural bias label as just about every story authored for your outlet shows some bias toward cannabis. As mentioned above, you would be greatly served by providing context, in this case: what were their alleged symptoms? Perhaps the inclusion of an outside expert would help balance the story as researchers will always back their conclusions even when ‘more research is needed’ as is the case with this study (only including one voice in an article is gatekeeping bias).

Including the non-alarmist parts of the study (improvement in insomnia and greater well-being) in the first or second graph would also help balance this particular article and maybe mentioning that at least 70% of study participants did not meet the criteria for cannabis use disorder would provide some additional balance and context.

So, let me rewrite that headline for you: “Study finds 70% of mood and anxiety disorder patients who receive medical cannabis report no adverse effects.”

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