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What the Devil won't tell you

What are crafters of anti-pot ads smoking?

Factchecking claims about Colorado's Rocky Mountain highs

I'm not going to get in the business of fact-checking every claim made between now and Election Day but I've rarely seen or heard of an ad as factually challenged as the first 30-second spot aired by the group out to beat back Prop. 205, the effort to legalize marijuana for personal use in Arizona.

Opponents of the proposition are seeking to keep personal use of weed illegal and have gone up with a doozy of an ad painting Colorado as a square-shaped hedonistic hellscape of hippiedom since voters there legalized marijuana in 2012. Apparently it's just a big Grateful Dead concert, circa 1978.

Governing magazine ranks Colorado's economy as the fourth-best in the country, the U.S. Department of Education reports the state ranks 15th in test scores and the Denver Broncos won a Super Bowl. Nearly 90 percent of Colorado teens say they don't smoke pot and marijuana-related traffic deaths have increased .000007 percent compared to Colorado's population. That's hardly a Mountain Sodom.

Fact-checking is dicey because even factual statements can be untrue. I can faithfully quote an Alex Jones claim and accurately restate a lie. This "No on 205" campaign spot makes fantastical claims that just aren't true. Even when they are faithful to source materials, the group misinterprets them in a textbook example of how to use numbers to fib.

The ad claims Denver Public Schools "got nothing" in marijuana tax revenue since voters made pot legal for personal use. Wrong. Dead wrong. But it's nothing compared to the spectacular claim that traffic deaths in Colorado have risen by 62 percent since decriminalization, as the 30-second spot's voice-over declares. Nope, that's wrong. Stunningly wrong. Gobsmackingly wrong.

The ad, sponsored by No on 205, likes to use percentages to paint a dramatic effect when small numbers change year to year.

Here's how you do that. Say you are interested in knowing about how cocaine use among Colorado's kids has changed since the approval of personal use laws in Colorado. You would look at a 2010 study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and see that 1.37 percent of Coloradans between ages 12 and 17 used cocaine then, compared to the 0.89 percent who fessed up to using it in 2014, after the pot laws changed.

Presto! Since voters approved decriminalized pot, teen cocaine use has fallen by 35 percent. The figures basically say 99 percent of Colorado kids say they don't use blow but we get that honking percentage differential when the real difference isn't nearly that pronounced.

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Using that tactic, we can also report the following findings about teen drug use comparing 2014 figures (two years after legalization) to 2009 numbers (three years prior to legalization):

  • Teen alcohol use has fallen by 30 percent.
  • Teen illicit drug use other than marijuana has dropped by 19 percent.
  • Teen abuse of painkillers has declined by 25 percent. 
  • Binge drinking among teens has fallen by 36 percent.
  • All while pot use among 12-17 year olds increased by 23 percent.

All of this according to the same report the No on 205 team references to come up with the claim that teen pot use is 74 percent more than the national average. There's no way of knowing.

That's the factcheck in a nutshell but read on if you choose to take on the ad's claims one at a time.

Colorado schools were promised millions in new revenues.

Instead, Denver schools got …nothing.

This is really sloppy because the ad would be accurate but misleading if it just changed "got nothing" to "received no state money." State marijuana funds are distributed to help rural school districts and those districts that have trouble with bonding capacity. Denver Public Schools don't qualify. However, Denver schools do receive about $1 per pupil in local marijuana funding. So to say they "got nothing" is flat-out false.

Nice trick, too in trying to conflate Denver schools with all of Colorado, which has received tens of millions in state marijuana tax funds. So they got their millions.

And all the copywriter for the ad had to do was watch the 1:34 second video the commercial references.

What did Denver students get?

Marijuana—in edibles that look like candy …  marketed to kids.

I'll cut them some slack here but it does read like students in schools walk by vending machines full of pot gummi bears. They mean kids in general were marketed candy in the shape of people and animals. This year, Colorado's Legislature passed a law banning that practice.

Candy is still sold laced with THC, because apparently chocolate and weed go great together (I don't like veggies in my chocolate personally). That can be a problem because candy in the shape of a rabbit can look disturblingly Easterish to kids and that can lead to a medical emergency.

This year, Colorado banned the sale of animal-shaped candy with THC as an ingredient.

Then again, right here in Arizona, liquor is included in some candy but kids are forbidden from buying it rather than making it a crime to buy it, punishable by jail time.

The candy-coated claim is at least quasi accurate and in somewhat proper context but leaves things out.

Teen marijuana use is the highest in the country — 74 percent higher.

No one knows the rate of teen marijuana use, short of monthly blood tests of Coloradans and following them around with drones.

No on 205 relies on the Rocky Mountain High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (yes, that's the name of an anti-marijuana organization and pretty soon a Boulder gutter punk band) report that references an annual federal survey.

A survey is dependent on kids admitting to drug use. It does not measure actual drug use but depends on respondents to truthfully 'fess up to their hedonistic sins. It's like calling the presidential election based on the latest Reuters/IPSOS poll.

Consider 99 percent of teens saying they never touch cocaine. That seems like an awfully high number that doesn't pass the sniff test.

The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration polls 67,000 Americans annually and across age groups to gather an understanding of drug use in America. It's kids telling the government that they commit a crime. Ever try to get a teenager to admit they broke a lamp? "It was like that when I got home from school ... honest."

So the ad should have said "reported" teen marijuana use is the highest in the country — 74 percent higher than the national average — and the assertion would be accurate.

No, it's not nitpicking because the authors of the study state that the margin of error falls within 30 percent range.

In a state where pot is not illegal, kids may be 74 percent more likely to answer, "yeah, I smoke." We can certainly conclude that for Colorado voters to be among the first to decriminalize pot in the country, attitudes in the state are more liberal toward pot than in Alabama. So Alabama kids may be more hesitant to admit use than Colorado kids.

But if we're going to use those numbers, we should understand that in Washington, too, pot has proven to be anything but a "gateway drug." It's proven to be "an off-ramp drug."

In Washington, where voters also decriminalized marijuana, other reported drug use has also fallen since 2009 among kids age 12-17.

  • Cocaine use dropped from 1.20 percent in 2009 to .73 percent in 2014, by 40 percent.
  • Abuse of prescription painkillers fell from 8.06 percent in 2009 to 5.19 percent in 2015, equaling 36 percent.
  • Reported alcohol use declined from 14.02 percent in 2009 to 10.44 percent in 2014. that's a 34 percent decrease.
  • Confessed binge drinking fell from 8.59 percent in 2009 to 5.56 percent in 2014, which is a 35 percent decline.
  • While pot use has increased from 8.06 percent in 2009 to 10.06 percent in 2014. which is basically a 20 percent increase.

I have a bone to pick with the national survey that may be here or there and maybe not. Tagging 12-year-olds with 17-year-old behavior sounds like a great way to scare Congress into giving the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration more money. At 17, kids have matured along every axis. A 17-year-old girl is nothing like a 12-year-old boy.

Traffic deaths increased 62 percent.

It's rare to see an ad make a claim so fantastically false but the authors are tricky about it.

Traffic deaths increased from 470 in 2012, the year before personal pot use was legalized to 542 in 2014. The percentage is closer to 15 percent and nowhere near the 62 percent figure the ad claims.

Now, the ad contains graphic visual element specifying a 62 percent increase in marijuana-related deaths but a viewer must be looking at the screen to get that point. If not, they just hear that horrifying figure and figure it's true.

Yet even that marijuana-related figure is false because to reach the 62 percent figure No on 205 had to cherry-pick the ripest year to compare 2015 statistics.

In 2012, the last year pot for personal use was illegal, there were 78 traffic deaths related to, but not necessarily caused by (according to the Rocky Mountain HIDTA's own words) marijuana. In 2013, the first year after legalization, deaths fell to 71, which is an 11 percent decrease. Yet by 2015, there were 115, for a difference of 37. Divide 37 by 78 and the figure is 47 percent. The No on 205 ad doesn't start with the last year pot was illegal. It starts with the first year pot was legal and deaths fell to puff up the percentage.

The whole ad is prefaced by comparing the change since pot was decriminalized except for this point because the number wasn't striking enough. So No on 205 fudged it.

It's worth pointing out here that Colorado's Department of Public Safety did not blame the spike on pot use. Rather, low gas prices and an improving economy meant more road miles were driven. Also, half the road death victims weren't wearing their damn seat belts. 

It's pure B.S. to declare that Colorado drivers are 62 percent more likely to die than they were before marijuana was legalized.

The increase on Colorado's roads requires scientific notation (.07 to the sixth power) to accurately report the higher incidents rate of pot-related road deaths in relation to Colorado's population. It's smaller when including the through traffic of out of state drivers at any given time.

It stands to reason though, that when a substance is legalized, more people will use it and it will become more ubiquitous throughout society. Freedom comes with collateral damage. All anyone needs to do is look at the 14,000 gun deaths per year to understand that.

It's a balancing act.

Millions of adult Coloradans are free to smoke pot and 37 more of them were involved with fatal car wrecks than before the drug was legalized.

Last year, more than 87.44 percent of Colorado's kids said they don't use pot but nationally the self-reported number is 92.78 percent. Yet other forms of drug use more or equally dangerous have reportedly declined in the Rocky Mountain state.

Measure that against 30,000 Coloradans no longer being prosecuted for personal use of marijuana and the costs to the individual and the taxpayer. That's 30,000 lives ruined because society says smoking pot may one day ruin their lives.

And by the way, take some Oxycodone. It'll stone you to your bones and mess up your digestion but it's good for big pharma's stock prices. Oh, and be sure to drink lots of beer to make the Broncos' ownership richer.

In Arizona we will prosecute pot smokers and ruin their lives to prevent them from one day ruining their lives. You can't make this stuff up unless you are No on 205 buying air time.

Blake Morlock covered Arizona government and politics for 15 years, including 11 in the Tucson Citizen. He also worked on Democratic Party campaigns in the field of political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.


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1 comment on this story

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14 comments
Oct 3, 2016, 4:46 pm
-0 +2

Fact checking Blake: Colorado is rectangular, not square shaped.

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