Pat Robertson’s marijuana memo

When Pat Robertson said on his show recently that he supported the legalization of marijuana, some of us didn’t blink twice. He has said things like this before, so it didn’t seem like news. But when the New York Times picked it up, people treat it like breaking news.

For a few minutes, we need to be willing to separate our own feelings about the issue of legalizing marijuana to consider how a story like this should be told. So put the issue itself aside and take a look at who’s quoted, what’s quoted, and who’s not quoted to evaluate whether or not the piece covers the story adequately.

Of the many roles Pat Robertson has assumed over his five-decade-long career as an evangelical leader — including presidential candidate and provocative voice of the right wing — his newest guise may perhaps surprise his followers the most: marijuana legalization advocate.

“I really believe we should treat marijuana the way we treat beverage alcohol,” Mr. Robertson said in an interview on Wednesday. “I’ve never used marijuana and I don’t intend to, but it’s just one of those things that I think: this war on drugs just hasn’t succeeded.”

Who was surprised by his stance besides this reporter?

“I love him, man, I really do,” said Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of current and former law enforcement officials who oppose the drug war. “He’s singing my song.”

We get some predictably positive reaction from from the executive director of an organization that supports marijuana legalization. Then we get more glowing opinion from another pro-drug-legalization group.

“Pat Robertson still has an audience of millions of people, and they respect what he has to say,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates for more liberal drug laws. “And he’s not backtracking. He’s doubling down.”

The piece goes back to Robertson, quoting beliefs as facts.

“It’s completely out of control,” Mr. Robertson said. “Prisons are being overcrowded with juvenile offenders having to do with drugs. And the penalties, the maximums, some of them could get 10 years for possession of a joint of marijuana. It makes no sense at all.”

Did the reporter fact check to confirm or deny this claim? Why not look at some data to see whether this is indeed the case (or at least put it in context of state laws)?

Then we get a few paragraphs the Chicago-area leader of black clergy members who personally says she supports marijuana legalization.

“I would hope and think that it would move the needle for the large constituencies of evangelicals he represents,” Dr. Carruthers added.

At some point in this piece of marijuana-legalization-supporters, you would think that the reporter would check to see if Robertson’s views go over well among other evangelicals. For instance, it wouldn’t hurt to look at some Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life data to get a sense of whether he’s among the majority who hold his view. Guess what: Just 25 percent of white evangelicals said marijuana should be made legal.

In the 19th paragraph, we get a quick explanation that one Christian organization, Focus on the Family, declined to comment on Robertson’s statements, except to say that it does not support the use of marijuana for either recreational or medicinal purposes. Really? Only one organization could be found? Was everyone else unavailable for comment? The reporter then repeats Robertson’s argument that there’s no difference between smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol.

“If people can go into a liquor store and buy a bottle of alcohol and drink it at home legally, then why do we say that the use of this other substance is somehow criminal?” he said.

I don’t know, perhaps a physician or two could weigh in on these ideas?

Keeping up this one-sided piece, we get more quotes from the pro-legalization leader quoted at the beginning who appears to have no formal training in Christian theology or ministry but is quoted as saying that Robertson’s position “is in line with the Gospel.” Jesus, he says, would not “condone the imprisoning of people for nonviolent offenses.”

The final section of the article grants more space to Robertson to tell us more about Jesus and how he’s been “assailed” by those who disagree with him. Man, if people are really assailing him right and left, you would think they would be available for comment.

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  • Roger_Murdock

    “The reporter then repeats Robertson’s argument that there’s no difference between smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol.”

    That’s crazy! There’s a HUGE difference. Cannabis is infinitely safer and causes far less societal harm than alcohol. Alcohol is toxic. Drink too much and you die. Cannabis is non-toxic. It’s literally impossible to fatally overdose on cannabis. Alcohol is the third-leading cause of preventable death in the U.S. (It turns out that drinking poison isn’t good for you.) Cannabis is not associated with increased mortality. Alcohol is addictive. In fact, you can be so addicted to alcohol that you can literally die FROM WITHDRAWAL. Cannabis is not physically addictive. If you want to talk about “psychological addiction,” be my guest (of course, that’s also possible with alcohol… or sex, or shopping, or video games, or a thousand other things that humans find pleasurable), but let’s all at least acknowledge that there’s no cannabis equivalent to delirium tremens. And alcohol, as a disinhibitor, is a MASSIVE contributor to violence. It’s involved in something like half of all violent crimes and 70% of domestic abuse cases. (Stop and think about those numbers for a second.) In contrast, cannabis use has never been linked to violence. If anything, it DECREASES the risk of violence by pacifying the user. While they can be overstated, there’s a reason we have the stereotypes of the “belligerent drunk” versus the “mellow stoner.” I know which one I prefer to be around.

    The drug warriors like to say that “marijuana isn’t harmless.” Of course, few things in this world are (although cannabis comes pretty close. There’s a reason that former DEA Judge Francis Young called it “one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man.”) But more importantly, that’s not the question. The question is not even whether its benefits outweigh its risks. The question is who decides in a free society: adult citizens individually for themselves or politicians and bureaucrats for all of us? The question is should we continue to spend billions we don’t have(and forego billions more in lost tax revenue) on an unwinnable and increasingly unpopular war, a war that only empowers and enriches organized crime, fuels gang violence, promotes official corruption, undermines respect for the law, turns millions of ordinary Americans into criminals, and poisons police / community relations? The question is should we be sending men with guns to arrest our fellow citizens and lock them in cages for the “crime” of possessing a plant (or engaging in consensual exchanges for its sale)? This madness can’t end soon enough.

  • http://branemrys.blogspot.com Brandon

    As you say, this is old news; at the very least reporters need to take this into account and not give the misleading impression that this is some sudden turnabout.

  • Jerry

    Did the reporter fact check to confirm or deny this claim? Why not look at some data to see whether this is indeed the case (or at least put it in context of state laws)?

    That question could be asked of any claim made by anyone. Do we need a disclaimer on news reports saying that all the claims in this story have been fact checked and by whom? I support fact checking 100% but you seem to be assuming that this claim was not fact checked. I think that the laws stated there are pretty much common knowledge.

    As far as Roger_Murdock’s advocacy post, what absolutely needs to be fact checked is claims about the physiological effects of marijuana which is easy to do as I found http://alcoholism.about.com/od/pot/a/effects.-Lya.htm by searching health effect marijauana and guess what: it’s not as harmless as he claimed.

    And in any debate such as this, reporters should look for more than a binary choice because often a false dichotomy has been posited. In this case, there’s legalizing medical use and reducing penalties to the misdemeanor or infraction level.

  • Richard Mounts

    Roger. Roger! Take a pause, man. There’s a reason Sarah asked the readers of this blog to put aside our opinions about the topic and focus on the journalism.

    If you’re new here you might not know that that is the point of this blog. Too often reporters who don’t regularly write religion stories can hammer them badly and not even realize it. Readers of religion stories often don’t have a basis for evaluating the quality of the journalism. To my mind, this blog is about teaching both parties.

    Now don’t Bogart the joint, my friend.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    The fact that only 25% of evangelicals support legalizing marijuana is interesting. I don’t know why it would be so low. It’s not as though scripture or tradition have anything to say about marijuana, after all.

    I don’t really understand why people in general are opposed to legalization, but particularly the evangelicals since there doesn’t seem to be a specifically religious issues involved. It would be interesting to hear from some of those folks.

  • Jon in the Nati

    It’s not as though scripture or tradition have anything to say about marijuana, after all.

    Depends on how one interprets the matter. The Catechism of the Catholic Church at 2291 calls drug use, except in a strictly therapeutic context, a “grave offense”, and calls trafficking in them a “scandalous practic[e].” Only binding for Catholics, of course, but certainly suggesting that someone thinks tradition has something to say about the matter.

    but particularly the evangelicals since there doesn’t seem to be a specifically religious issues involved

    I think this is the big thing. Because scripture has nothing in particular to say on the matter (i.e., does not demand that one position be taken over another), many people default to political preference, which for many means that they support, to one extent or another, continued prohibition of currently-illegal drugs.

    On a related note, I share Brandon’s concern that this will be reported as a sudden 180 by the usually-stodgy Robertson. In reality, this is something that Robertson has been saying for some time; the fact that some enterprising journo just picked up on it is irrelevant.

  • http://www.samueljhoward.us Samuel J. Howard

    William F. Buckley was for marijuana legalization, so this is not exactly new even among conservatives.

  • Roger_Murdock

    As far as Roger_Murdock’s advocacy post, what absolutely needs to be fact checked is claims about the physiological effects of marijuana which is easy to do as I found http://alcoholism.about.com/od/pot/a/effects.-Lya.htm by searching health effect marijauana and guess what: it’s not as harmless as he claimed.

    Um… I never claimed it was “harmless.” I claimed that it was LESS harmful than alcohol using 4 pretty fundamental metrics: (1) acute toxicity; (2) long-term mortality association; (3) physical addiction; and (4) tendency to promote violence. And I explicitly made the point that whether or not it’s “harmless” is not the relevant question.

  • Roger_Murdock

    Richard, I appreciate that the focus of this blog is the press’ treatment of religion. MY focus is ending the absurd, unjust, and hypocritical war on (certain politically-disfavored) drugs. And while I can usually find a way to work that angle into any story, I try not to be TOO obnoxiously off-topic. ;) And I never bogart.

  • Judith Daniel

    Good for Pat Robertson.

    The drug companies know that cannabis will be the next source of products for them and are actively developing it’s components. They want to keep it out of the hands of the average person to be able to profit from a substance that we could easily grow and provide for ourselves. Legalization is our only hope of bringing this important plant back into the hands of the people.

    Take cannabis out of the black market and it will not be a “gateway drug” because one will not have to encounter that criminal subculture to get it.

    Good reading: The Pot Book, by Julie Holland MD and film, “What if Cannabis Cured Cancer” by Len Richmond. Terrific!

  • carl

    It’s hard for me to think the NYTimes actually cares about Pat Robertson’s opinion on anything. This story strikes me as the equivalent of a Journalistic side show. It’s not meant to inform. It’s meant to titilate the senses of the intended audience with an experience of the abnormal. “The Bearded Lady.” “The Half-Man/Half Woman.” “Pat Robertson and his Amazing Opinions.” All the story needs is a barker.

    Really now. How many readers of the NYTimes can you image ever saying to themselves “I wonder what Pat Robertsion thinks about that subject?” except in the context I just described?

    carl

  • Malcolm Kyle

    Jerry, the web-site you linked to contains nothing but conjecture and guesswork – not one study is referenced for us to check any of the conclusions there.

    Here’s some real facts, and also some science:

    “Associated with” is not the same as “causation.”

    Schizophrenia affects approximately one percent of the population. That percentage has held steady since the disease was identified, while the percentage of people who have smoked marijuana has varied from about 5% to around 40% of the general population.
    Source: http://www.schizophrenia.com/szfacts.htm

    Despite a massive increase in the number of Australians consuming the drug since the 1960s, Wayne Hall of the University of Queensland found no increase in the number of cases of schizophrenia in Australia. Mitch Earleywine of the University of Southern California similarly found the same with regard to the US population and Oxford’s Leslie Iversen found the same regard to the population in the UK. According to Dr. Alan Brown, a professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at Columbia University, “If anything, the studies seem to show a possible decline in schizophrenia from the ’40s and the ‘ 50″.

    Kindly Google any of the following combinations:

    Nicotine and Schizophrenia
    Alcohol and Schizophrenia
    Chocolate and Schizophrenia
    Sugar and Schizophrenia
    Gluten and Schizophrenia

    So should we hand the market in any of the above substances to criminals (which is what prohibition effectively does) because its use is ‘associated’ with a certain minute part of the population? Many bipolar patients misuse caffeine and tobacco in an effort to bring on a manic state, thus becoming a danger to themselves or others. Should tobacco and caffeine or whatever works for each individual be prohibited to boost ratings or rhetoric also? Where does it end?

    Persons with chronic mental illness die 25 years earlier than the general population does, and smoking is the major contributor to that premature mortality. This population consumes 44% of all cigarettes.
    Source: http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.publhealth.012809.103701

    Cigarette smoking rates in the American population are approximately 23%, whereas rates of smoking in clinical and population studies of individuals with neuropsychiatric disorders are typically two- to four-fold higher.
    Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1201375/?tool=pmcentrez

    Caffeine is most certainly linked with mental illness; psychosis even. Here’s some reading:

    Broderick, P. & Benjamin, A.B. (2004). Caffeine and psychiatric symptoms: a review. Journal of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, 97(12), 538-542.

    Hedges, D.W., Woon, F.L. & Hoopes S.P. (2009). Caffeine-induced psychosis. CNS Spectrums, 14(3),127-129.

    A Gallop survey in 2011 found that a record-high 50% of Americans now say the use of marijuana should be made legal (for recreational purposes), A minority of Forty-six percent said that recreational marijuana use should remain illegal.

    A Gallup survey in 2010 found that 70% favored making it legal for doctors to prescribe marijuana in order to reduce pain and suffering.

    http://www.gallup.com/poll/150149/record-high-americans-favor-legalizing-marijuana.aspx

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: The Catechism of the Catholic Church at 2291 calls drug use, except in a strictly therapeutic context, a “grave offense”, and calls trafficking in them a “scandalous practic[e].” Only binding for Catholics, of course, but certainly suggesting that someone thinks tradition has something to say about the matter.

    Right, I certainly think that’s true for hard drugs, but I’d put marijuana in the same realm as alcohol (or, for that matter, caffeine). Medically, it’s substantially safer for you than alcohol, and it doesn’t cause the same kind of social problems, either.

    I’m not sure if I would classify the catechism as normative tradition in the same sense as an Ecumenical Council, but it’s certainly a fair point. I don’t think it’s clear that marijuana should be included though (and that’s precisely the issue).

    Re: I think this is the big thing. Because scripture has nothing in particular to say on the matter (i.e., does not demand that one position be taken over another), many people default to political preference, which for many means that they support, to one extent or another, continued prohibition of currently-illegal drugs.

    Yeah, this is the big thing right here, I think. It reminds me a lot of how, on the other side of the aisle, a lot of cultural liberals aren’t really interested in hearing the medical evidence about the efficacy of Natural Family Planning (or the relative failure rates of condoms). They know that the Democratic Party and the liberal-feminist lobby like condoms, they know that the Catholic Church likes NFP, so that’s enough for them to know which side to line up on, irrespective of the evidence. Similarly, I think at least some cultural conservatives aren’t really open to hearing medical evidence about how harmful marijuana really is.

  • sari

    Malcolm, I agree. We have a saying in the autism community: correlation does not imply causation. Anyway, to riff on what you said, when I worked in a tox lab, nearly every person positive for meth had caffeine and nicotine spikes on their GC readouts. It’s also been documented that people with certain mental illnesses and neurological disorders self-medicate with coffee, cigarettes, and a variety of licit and illicit medications. Drinking coffee to address the attentional deficits of ADHD and consuming alcohol to combat depression are perhaps the most common.

    Back to Robertson. His views may be old news in Christian circles, but they are new news to people like me. The journalist could have fleshed out the views of those who disagree with him or, at least, referenced state and federal laws on marijuana possession, but we should note that an effort was made to contact at least one religio-conservative group that often supports Robertson. Lastly, he reaches a large constituency, which makes what he has to say newsworthy.

  • sari

    Yeah, this is the big thing right here, I think. It reminds me a lot of how, on the other side of the aisle, a lot of cultural liberals aren’t really interested in hearing the medical evidence about the efficacy of Natural Family Planning (or the relative failure rates of condoms). They know that the Democratic Party and the liberal-feminist lobby like condoms, they know that the Catholic Church likes NFP, so that’s enough for them to know which side to line up on, irrespective of the evidence. Similarly, I think at least some cultural conservatives aren’t really open to hearing medical evidence about how harmful marijuana really is.

    Hector,
    It may be less about the efficacy of NFP, which techniques are used by many to get pregnant, and more about the necessary self-discipline. Every study suggests that condoms, used properly, are quite effective, especially when used in tandem with spermicide. But, mainly, they and other forms of contraception address spontaneous sex, which seems to be the norm.

    Some stats:

    http://www.womenshealth.gov/publications/our-publications/fact-sheet/birth-control-methods.cfm

    Even better–contrasts the difference between usual and perfect use -and- the percentage who maintain use.

    http://www.cks.nhs.uk/contraception/background_information/effectiveness_of_contraceptives

  • Jon in the Nati

    Right, I certainly think that’s true for hard drugs, but I’d put marijuana in the same realm as alcohol (or, for that matter, caffeine). Medically, it’s substantially safer for you than alcohol, and it doesn’t cause the same kind of social problems, either.

    Maybe; probably, even. The point is that the Catechism does not make any distinction; I’m certain there are experts within the church that would put marijuana in that category, and many others that would not.

    I’m not sure if I would classify the catechism as normative tradition in the same sense as an Ecumenical Council, but it’s certainly a fair point.

    “Tradition” does not necessarily mean ‘defined by an Ecumenical Council.’ Being an Anglican, I get that you may not be as big on the authoritative teaching power of the Pope and Magisterium independent of an Ecumenical Council as I am; still, the fact remains that this is largely how Catholic teaching is defined, ecumenical concerns notwithstanding.

    Also: can someone please tell all the heads and stoners that GR is not the place to push their agenda of legalization/decriminalization (an agenda I support, by the way), just as it would not be the proper venue to push for continued criminalization?

  • John M.

    I hardly hang on Pat Robertson’s every word, but this was news to me. And as a supporter of decriminalization, I would have remembered it, had I come across it, I think.

    -John

  • Charlie

    The bible actually does mention cannabis, or kaneh bosm as it was referred to. Take a look at http://justiceanddrugs.blogspot.com/2012/03/was-cannabis-ingredient-in-holy.html for information about the role of cannabis as an important component in the anointing oil referred to in Exodus 30:22-25.