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The US Surgeon General Just Tweeted WHAT About Cannabis?

March 1, 2019
US Surgeon General Tweets Cannabis Disinformation
(ApoevAndrey/iStock)
US Surgeon General Jerome Adams recently used his official Twitter account to make a startling claim: Contrary to the promises made by criminal-justice and drug-policy reform advocates, he said, the era of legal adult-use cannabis has actually led to more people of color being arrested.

The Feb. 23 tweet triggered immediate backlash from academics and researchers as well as cannabis-reform advocates, who pointed out a fundamental problem with what the country’s chief medical officer broadcast to his roughly 584,000 followers: It’s just not true. Not at all.

“The number of marijuana arrests decreased by 56% for Whites, 39% for Hispanics, and 51% for Blacks.”
Colorado Dept. of Public Health

In Colorado, marijuana-related arrests decreased by 52% between 2012, the year voters legalized recreational marijuana, and 2017, according to a much-anticipated state Department of Public Safety report released in October.

Figures from other states reflect a similar phenomenon: There are far fewer people arrested for an activity that is no longer a crime—a fact that is true across racial lines.

“The number of marijuana arrests decreased by 56% for Whites, 39% for Hispanics, and 51% for Blacks,” according to the Colorado report.

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These statistics nevertheless reveal a persistent problem: Racial disparities in cannabis arrests remain. Just as before legalization, a disproportionate number of black and Latino people are arrested for marijuana crimes compared to whites—meaning legalization has solved neither racism nor racially biased policing.

Maybe that’s what Adams, who is black, actually meant?

Apparently not: On Feb. 26, Adams posted a follow-up tweet clarifying that he’d meant what he said. And with that, Adams went from merely mistaken to ideologically incorrect.

Doubling Down on Disinformation

To support his claims, Adams, who was appointed in 2017 by President Donald Trump, tweeted slides from a presentation prepared last year by Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), a Washington, DC–based advocacy group that opposes cannabis legalization.

Over the past several years, SAM has earned a reputation for opposing medical and adult-use legalization at all costs—truth and data among them.

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The organization has been repeatedly accused of misrepresenting facts or cherry-picking data to paint as dire a picture of legalization as possible.

Other spurious claims made by Project SAM or its cofounder, Kevin Sabet, a former official in the Office of National Drug Control Policy—which is not a science-based office but an agency mandated by Congress to oppose marijuana legalization—include the patently false assertion that marijuana legalization leads to fentanyl-laced cannabis, a claim made to Kentucky state lawmakers, and the equally bogus assertion that there is a causal link between marijuana legalization and homelessness.

“It’s like having the Flat Earth Society joining a conversation about geography.”
Dr. Peter Grinspoon, Harvard Medical School

In 2017, SAM agreed to pay thousands of dollars in fines for violating California campaign finance law after failing to disclose special interests who helped fund the group’s opposition to Proposition 64, which legalized adult-use cannabis in the state.

Shadowy origins aside, the data tweeted by Surgeon General Adams have also drawn fire from public health and policy experts.

As noted by Renee M. Johnson, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, Adams’s claim about arrests rates seems to rest on an assertion made by SAM regarding arrest rates specifically of black youth. The same can’t be said with respect to all black people, nor all people of color.

In Colorado, for example, the number of black youth arrested for marijuana—which, to be clear, remains illegal for minors—increased from 205 in 2012 to 324 in 2014.

That’s an increase, yes. But even that claim falls victim to serious problem that renders the data all but worthless, except of course to foment fear and confusion on Twitter: The state data was incomplete. A footnote in the report explicitly says as much, though Adams’s tweet omitted that detail.

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In Denver, where most black people in Colorado live, data painted a different picture. Police there reported that arrests of black youth plummeted by 75%.

“The data should not be reported without those caveats,” Johnson told Leafly News via email. “Nonetheless, SAM evidently passed on the slide to the Surgeon General, and it was posted on Twitter.”

“As a matter of routine, if you give data to someone impactful like a Surgeon General it should be triple checked for accuracy and complete notation,” she added.

On Twitter, Johnson said she felt frustrated that the surgeon general “uses data from advocacy organizations and doesn’t reach out to federally-funded researchers.”

Contacted by Leafly News, a spokesperson for the Office of the Surgeon General did not address either Adams’s misstatement nor his choice to publicize misleading data from an anti-marijuana activist group.

“The Office of the Surgeon General strives to take into account an array of stakeholder points of view and data when looking at science around health,” Kate Migliaccio-Grabill wrote in an email Thursday. “As with any topic, when there is inadequate or incomplete knowledge, public health decisions should be made on the basis of the best available evidence with a focus on a precautionary approach to prevent harm. As America’s doctor the Surgeon General is worried about unintended health and societal consequences of marijuana use in young adults and pregnant women.”

She did not immediately respond to further questions.

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Not the First Time

Adams’s tacit endorsement of SAM data was only the latest in a string of tweets that contained questionable or debunked claims regarding cannabis. All of them have since been contradicted by data provided by academics and researchers.

On Feb. 21, Adams posted that “In children and young adults, Marijuana has been shown to impede brain development and reduce lifelong academic achievement.”

Studies making such claims have been “completely discredited,” said Dr. Peter Grinspoon, a Boston-area physician who teaches at Harvard Medical School.

“Why is the surgeon general making random, misinformed statements about cannabis?” Grinspoon asked. As for having Project SAM data cited when Adams’s claim was challenged: “It’s like having the Flat Earth Society joining a conversation about geography,” he said.

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Two days later, on Feb. 23, Adams (or whoever is running his account) claimed that data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health “clearly shows underage youth increased in states that legalized marijuana, both for medical and adult use. Wr [sic] can’t ignore youth trends.”

But apparently you can ignore well-researched reports that contradict that claim. After all, Adams himself did exactly that.

Barely two months earlier, the RAND Corporation had released a report concluding the opposite had happened in Washington state. Youth cannabis use had fallen since legalization, the report found—though researchers also called for the use of better data to follow the changing trends. In Colorado, data from that same survey found that youth cannabis-use rates were either unchanged or had fallen to decade-low levels following legalization.

All of which raises the question: Why would the nation’s top public health official choose to publicize disinformation?

Whether it’s representative of an institutional bias in Washington, DC, or a warning of what’s to come from the Trump Administration, experts contacted by Leafly News couldn’t say for sure. Some called it yet another example of an “alternative”—that is, false—assertion from Team Trump.

“He has access to better statistics,” Sam Kamin, a professor of marijuana law and policy at the University of Denver, said of Adams’s tweet. “It’s like Donald Trump tweeting out what he just heard on Fox News rather than what he’s hearing from his intelligence services.”

Chris Roberts's Bio Image

Chris Roberts

Based in New York City, Chris Roberts has been writing about cannabis since spending a few months in Humboldt County in 2009. His work has been published in SF Weekly, Cannabis Now, The Guardian, High Times, and San Francisco Magazine, among others.

View Chris Roberts's articles

  • jd

    as a conservative christian,,,who knows kenneh-bossem(cannabis)was given to moses for anointing oil/exodus 30:22-33…original hebrew manuscripts …it is a healing gift from GOD……big pharma,greed and control is the real issue here(truth will become lies and lies will become truth)…..I WILL BE VOTING LIBERAL LOONY LEFT ALL THE WAY ACROSS THE BOARD,,,,the country be damned,,,,,,tired of being lied to…my family members are sick and dying as well as I……second amendment aint much good if your to sick to hunt,,,or too dead to defend yourself….still as a christian,i have to pray for these lyin’ bastards,,but what i pray is between me and GOD…YA,WELL,,,,,,,I AIN’T NO SAINT

  • Barry Manson

    What do you expect from a Trumper other than lies?

  • Leroy Mosley

    Black people get blamed for every negative thing wrong in the USA. So why wasn’t white people included?

  • R. Schmidt

    Interestingly this was one of the war cries for making pot illegal in the 70’s. “That young black men would wreak havoc on white people and society in general and stuck fear into all until the government made all forms of cannabis illegal. And here we are again with the country’s foremost medical leader saying this kind of thing? Before trump this would have been grounds for dismissal but in this new era Trump and his cronies can say and do anything without consequence.

  • Paul Sorensen

    Thankfully, the half truths of critics like Adams are readily revealed. But Harry Anslinger lives in this prohibition propaganda.

    • Adams isn’t giving half truths, your receiving half brained inferences to what he is saying. He’s saying they are lying about the numbers. If he’s right about the Numbers, shouldn’t people know so they can fix the problem?

  • Michael L. Wallace Jr.

    Making people (including Children) develop Deadly & Debilitating illnesses (Like Cancers). That can be Prevented. By daily (Recreational) ingestion of Decarboxylated Marijuana. Should be a Crime.

  • jd

    mrs bledsoe of arkansas has introduced a bill to block access to leafly and weedmaps in arkansas,,,if she wins your state could be next

  • Lance Brofman

    Lt. Calley was not a West Point officer. One of the problems of the Viet Nam era was that, in sharp contrast to other wars, rich people could easily avoid military service (see Donald Trump etc.) so that, with many exceptions, even the officers were the poor or the dregs of society. That was the case with Lt. Calley the Mai Lai atrocity perpetrator.

    Calley was born in Miami, Florida. His father, also William Laws Calley, was a United States Navy veteran of World War II. Calley Jr. graduated from Miami Edison High School in Miami and then attended Palm Beach Junior College in 1963. He dropped out in 1964 after receiving unsatisfactory grades, consisting of one C, two Ds, and four Fs.[3]
    Calley then worked at a variety of jobs before enlistment, including as a bellhop, dishwasher, salesman, insurance appraiser, and train conductor.[4]
    Military career
    Calley underwent eight weeks of basic combat training at Fort Bliss, Texas. Calley’s evaluations described him as average as an officer.[3] Later, as the My Lai investigation progressed, a more negative picture emerged. Men in his platoon reported to army investigators that Calley lacked common sense and could not read a map or compass properly

    • Sharp contrast to what wars Dimwit? Every war we ever had was that way and should be. what use is being Wealthy if it gives you no advantage? Your just Envious. You don’t begrudge the rich, your upset because your not one of them. Know what? They get the best weed money can buy too. Hmmmmm,

  • You are a sick puppy viper. That was not the reason for the Draft and the Vietnam War anymore than the Civil War was declared over slavery issues. Mai Lai was not even close to the worst “killers” as you describe it, just real popular with the news. Reefer Madness was a falsehood in it’s entirety way before Vietnam was ever any issue for the U.S. I don’t recall ever hearing anyone suggest Black men would go crazy and rape White Women and I am a 60’s child and a Vietnam Vet. I was there from 67 to 68 so I was there at its densest moments, Went in country down south in 3 corp left from the North in I corp and never once did I see a single predominantly black unit of anything bigger than a squad size. There were a lot of Blacks, yes. There were a lot of everybody else too, yes. More than 3 million so we were mixed pretty well. Never heard any suggestions that Black Men were drafted to protect White women. STOP LYING JERK.
    P.S. Way better Pot in Panama than Nam had anyway.

  • Hypocrites!? Why would we not use Pot as much as you Bolsheviks do? Lol. Trump doesn’t use it doesn’t mean we Republicans don’t use it. We didn’t elect Pres, Trump so we could emulate him. We hired him because he’s not a Politician. When you need to clean out a rattlesnake den, you don’t get another rattlesnake for the Job. You get a Mongoose or maybe a King Snake even an Eagle We got us an Eagle..

    • Anon Amos

      He is certainly a king SNAKE.

  • Open your other eye Cyclops. Stop falling for the Bolshevik Propaganda. The Economy is skyrocketing and the World not only respects us again but they fear us just a bit too, and ask any Father, that’s not a bad thing.

  • Bitter disappointment then huh?

  • Anon Amos

    The states that have ended prohibition have said just the opposite. It was not dRump who addressed the inequality of sentencing. It was, and is, several Congressmembers. “Maybe” black people are selling… You just have to make something the fault of blacks, don’t you?

  • Anon Amos

    You might be interest in the research from Spain that shows cannabis killing or stopping cancer in 5-6 ways. Search “cannabis research Spain” on youtube.