New York Times Publishes Heavily Biased Article on Teen Cannabis Use

The New York Times on June 23 published an article highlighting the adverse experience of a teenager using cannabis concentrates – it’s the second time this year the outlet has taken a fear-mongering approach to its cannabis coverage.

At Cannabias, we’ve already broken down the problem with this coverage, namely, teenagers shouldn’t be using cannabis in the first place unless they are registered patients. For starters, 14-years-old is too young to be using cannabis. Highlighting teens using cannabis and using that story as a vehicle for the possible harms of consumption is coverage bias. For every ‘teen uses cannabis, has adverse effects’ story, there are hundreds of competing stories of cannabis – used properly – helping kids with seizure disorders, Crohn’s disease, and with cancer treatment; however, the New York Times seems hellbent on highlighting the negative outcomes (‘if it bleeds, it leads,’ after all).

Adjective and adverbial bias are apparent throughout: graph four describes “euphoria (morphing) into something more disturbing.” Cannabis made the subject of the story (again a teenager) “feel more anxious or sad” or passing out in the shower. Well, yeah, her brain is still developing, of course she’s going to feel adverse effects, she’s a teenager, as teens we all feel bouts of anxiety and sadness. Also, (and I think we’ve crossed this bridge before) where are her parents when she’s passed out in the shower? The following graph also shows adjective and adverbial bias by describing the concentrates as “typically about 90% THC.” Do those products exist? They sure do but, even in legal markets are increasingly tough to find. They’re referred to as “platinum” in some circles and I’ve yet to see them in vape cartridge form, as the story suggests. To be fair, I’ve only made legal purchases in Michigan, Canada, Maine, Massachusetts, and on tribal land in New York and while I have seen concentrates near 90% THC, I’ve not seen them actually hit 90% on paper, but I digress.

Okay, so the New York Times article makes the claim that “nearly everyone” the subject knew was using these high-test concentrates, but doesn’t provide evidence and doesn’t interview anyone else which is an example of tone bias or even quality bias.

The author then migrates to what appears to be the trend du jour for anti-cannabis coverage recently: cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome (CHS), the condition that causes some (very few) cannabis consumers to vomit uncontrollably. This is, again, coverage bias as the condition is relatively rare with the only study attempting to figure out the rate finding about 155 of 2,127 patients meeting the criteria for CHS or a “phenomenon similar.”

The author cites studies throughout; however, one study on an issue does not equate to “studies” (omission bias) and everyone in the industry that I’ve ever spoken to believes we need more studies to back up those of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other government-backed organizations and studies. (The problem with that is federal prohibition, which makes that near impossible.)

The author also includes one quote from the subject’s father but did she not ask the question, “where were you when she was 14 vaping (alleged) 90% THC?” I mean, that, for me, would be a key issue in this narrative.

The article is also plagued with photographic bias: images of brightly-colored vape pens, a blonde girl using a branded vape, what appear to be Nerds (maybe the cannabis copycat version, it’s unclear) a “liquid live resin in a girl’s bedroom” – each one utilized to invoke the ‘that could be my child’ fear. The whole article is designed to stoke fear and the accompanying images are meant to drive that point home.

The article, like many I’ve covered that focuses on youth cannabis use, fails to even tiptoe into the issue of personal responsibility. ‘It’s the drug’s fault!’ they scream, but where are the parents? Where are they even obtaining these products? I can tell you, in every single retail dispensary I have ever been to, I get ID’d (and I have grey hair in my beard); in Massachusetts and Canada I get ID’d twice. If these teenagers are getting these products from dealers, that is a topic worthy of investigation and, again, nearly every cannabis industry operator I have spoken to has explained the lengths they go through to subvert diversion and doesn’t want to see their products in the hands of teens. Also, where are these kids getting the money for these products? Platinum (the 90% concentrate) is $100 for a half gram at almost every retailer I’ve ever been to and while that may not be the case in more mature markets, these are the high-level questions the media should be focused on, rather than the kid who smoked too much cannabis and got sick.

As a youth, I drank often to the point of getting alcohol poisoning like an idiot, where was the New York Times then? As an instructor at a college, I see kids come in who drank too much the night before in a 9:30 am class – where is the New York Times to write 4,000 words about that? It’s coverage bias plain and simple. It’s gatekeeping bias. It’s irresponsible.

Remedy: The reporter could have tried to get to the bottom of how these kids are accessing such potent products, why the parents didn’t intervene, they could have interviewed the alleged other teenagers who are using these products, could have better explained the rarity of CHS, or that 90% THC products are not really that prevalent in legal markets. This article is high on conjecture, low on investigation, follows one subject, interviews too few experts, and relies on the old “what about the children” argument to demonize cannabis.

Cannabis should be used responsibly – by adults and in low doses or small doses of concentrates (just like alcohol) and the reporting around it should also be responsible. According to NIH statistics, 5,000 young people die annually as a result of underage drinking but you’d be hard-pressed to find the Times writing about any of those.

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