The true cost of cannabis: Why don't its illnesses, deaths command media headlines?
In August, I started covering vaping lung injuries from high-potency THC. Next, I added the link between cannabis and mental illness, but it's lonely.
I've covered things that injure, sicken and kill kids and adults for more than 30 years. From auto safety to medical errors, I've competed to break stories on the latest deadly defect or health policy change, most recently on electronic cigarettes.
In late August, I added vaping-related lung illnesses to the beat. Last month, I added marijuana, psychosis and other mental illness.
It's a pretty solitary place to be.
We reporters covered the heck out of vaping lung illnesses starting in August. Once it became clear the culprit was THC and not nicotine, however, the news media seemed to lose interest, said former Food and Drug Administration chief Scott Gottlieb at a breakfast event I attended in early November.
Indeed, a search on the news archive Nexis shows that the number of stories mentioning "vaping" and "lung illness" went from 953 in September to 584 in the first 30 days of October, a nearly 40% drop.
The deaths and injuries from lung illnesses are declining, but they've hardly abated and are clearly a sign of a much larger problem with excessive marijuana use among young people. Yet families from the D'Ambrosios in California to the Donats in Connecticut were caught unaware.
Families caught by the consequences
Ricky D'Ambrosio, 21, was in a medically induced coma for four of the 10 days he was hospitalized in late August after vaping THC he bought from a dispensary. He had a medical marijuana card.
D'Ambrosio's recovering well now, but my Connecticut high school friend Billy Donat's family wasn't so lucky.
On Dec. 29, Donat emailed me for the first time ever. It read:
"Sometimes we reach out to old friends at the worst of times, this is one of those times. On Christmas Day, my son of 22 years put an electric cord around his neck and hung himself one day after his release from Yale Psychiatric Hospital. On the table in the living room was a copy (of) USA Today dated 12/16/2019. I told my son that you had written an article about his condition linking pot to psychosis. SCHIZOPHRENIA. I had read the front page at the news stand. I wish I had turned to page 6 and finished the article."
If he had, he would have seen that the federal "mental health czar" and psychiatrist, Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz, lamenting how little attention the "settled science" on pot and psychosis gets and the huge increase in suicides among young people with marijuana in their systems in Colorado.
On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 2,561 people have been hospitalized with vaping-related lung illness and 55 have died. That's one more death and over 50 more hospitalizations from two weeks earlier.
CDC says 80% of hospitalized patients who had complete information about their products reported vaping THC; 13% said they vaped just nicotine.
Most everyone I talk to — even some doctors — say nicotine vaping and Juul, especially, is what's clogging kids' lungs. If it is, it hasn't been identified by any of the many state or federal scientists who have reported on their findings. They have only been able to find vitamin E acetate from THC oil in patients' lungs.
There has been an outcry to ban flavored electronic cigarettes — or all of them, as in San Francisco — and Congress voted to raise the age for all e-cigarette tobacco products to 21 last month. The Trump administration announced plans Thursday to restrict most flavors of the one-time-use pods in e-cigarettes.
But what about when the industry isn't an easily identified and demonized monolith like Big Tobacco or ... Juul? What if the purported problem is something advocates have been trying to get mandated or legalized for years?
That sounds a lot like air bags to me — and the kind of resistance my former colleague Jim Healey and I faced in 1996 when we wrote that air bags had killed about two dozen kids and that regulators weren't telling the public. Our stories led to the warning labels and smart air bags now in every new car.
Air bags were saving adults' lives! There's always a trade-off, isn't there?
Press lets pot's bad news slip by
Former New York Times business reporter Alex Berenson says that the human cost of cannabis is too high — and that the press is too pro-pot. When his latest book, "Tell Your Children: The Truth about Marijuana, Mental Illness and Violence," came out early last year, Berenson knew marijuana proponents wouldn't like it. He just didn't think there would be what he calls a "media brownout." No major publications reviewed it.
Reporters from major U.S. newspaper companies never contacted him for stories, although those in eight other countries — including Japan, Italy and Australia — did. (USA TODAY interviewed him for a March article.) Public radio and a suburban New York school system canceled appearances.
Berenson, a registered independent who didn't have strong feelings about marijuana legalization until he researched his book, has become an unlikely favorite of the conservative media and think tanks. He blames what he says is "a genuine misunderstanding of the strength of the science supporting the cannabis-psychosis link," which is worsened by "the endless industry/advocacy yelling about 'Reefer Madness.' "
"Reefer Madness" was a 1936 movie that used crazed marijuana users to show the purported risks of the drug.
"The cannabis lobby ... will personally attack anyone who tries to raise the issue," Berenson says.
His "not so secret weapon," however, is that "I no longer care what anyone says about me," he says. "I know what the facts are, and I'm going to repeat them until someone pays attention."
Last month, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported new data showing marijuana use by students from eighth to 12th grade was way up — with 1 in 5 high school seniors vaping it in the past year.
The recent story I wrote with colleagues on marijuana's link to mental health ran on the front page and was one of the top stories on our website for days. More than 250 people with children or personal experience with mental illness linked to marijuana joined our Facebook support group — I Survived It.
I don't know about you, but that makes me pay attention.
Jayne O'Donnell covers health policy for USA TODAY.