Misinformation is rife in the cannabis industry and it’s precluding the development of good research and regulation. Social media’s disruption of traditional media has dropped the bottom out of ethics, which has totally disappeared where online users lead discourse. Cannabis is unique because it’s an organic product appearing from thin air during the age of information.

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It’s not a fifteenth iPhone or twentieth Marvel movie, nor is it simply understood, and so people lack a shared knowledge base with which to discuss the merit of any piece of cannabis information. Unfortunately, viral information trumps first-hand black market or industry expertise on the internet, and the loudest voices dictate the conversation, education, and regulation of cannabis.

The Attention Economy Eliminates Gainful Dialogue

Newer online publications lack the laurels of journalistic excellence that have historically distinguished media outlets. Nonetheless, new publications are wresting control of a new market that’s emerged through social media, called the attention economy, where success is measured in clicks and going viral.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably not new to cannabis. You’ve already gained at least a basic familiarity — and so you’re one of the fortunate ones. For the beginner learning about cannabis on the internet, they’re being educated on the battlefield. Even basic facts are contentious: Rolling Stone’s Top 10 Marijuana Myths (2012) and the Drug and Testing Industry Association’s Busting the Top Ten Marijuana Myths (2014) are both resources a novice might discover on Google: both seem convincing and neither agree on anything.

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Becoming an informed novice is made increasingly difficult by the perpetuation of dialogues formed on false premises by major media players. A 2017 NBC investigation found pesticides in 41 of 44 cannabis products on dispensary shelves. These products all underwent state-mandated third party testing and so the NBC study tacitly alleges widespread malfeasance from either the grower, laboratory, dispensary, or possibly all three.

Dr. Jeffrey Raber, Executive Director of the Association of Commercial Cannabis Labs explained to Wikileaf that “testing for pesticides is like finding a needle in a haystack because each individual strain has a complex plant matrix with 100’s of compounds and non-uniform physiology”. Instead of broaching potential reasons for a discrepancy, NBC sets fire to the issue and walks away whistling, content leaving audiences to conclude cannabis businesses are disreputable. You can learn more about the contamination problem in cannabis products here.

Watering marijuana plant by aerosol can iStock / Zbynek Pospisil

Sensationalism Takes Priority Over Factual Reporting

There are purveyors of misinformation on both sides of the cannabis debate. Because cannabis has no shared basis of knowledge, sensationalists proffering false information have gained influential platforms within the cannabis community.

Sensationalists hinder the dissemination of well-researched cannabis science. Zachary Siegel, a writer for The New Republic, explores changes in the national dialogue after the popular release of a 2019 book: Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence.

Siegel suggests a wave of fear-induced obstructionism has taken hold in publications including The Atlantic and The New Yorker (written by Malcom Gladwell). It’s probably not a good idea to diss a world-renowned journalist, but I’m going to say it; Gladwell doesn’t know a damn thing about the issues he’s representing as undetermined. Clicking onto the Gladwell article, I was greeted with a pop-up stating that The New Yorker is “fighting fake stories with real ones,” and the irony is deep because the conversation in the article rests on a foundation of statistical manipulation and misleading storytelling.

A 2019 publication in the prestigious The Lancet Psychiatry medical journal drew a stinging rebuke from NORML. Their main quarrel with this contentious study is that lead researcher, Dr. Marta Di Forti claims, outright, that cannabis causes psychosis. Di Forti is wrong to conclude causality. The science is not conclusive; neither hers nor in the research community, at large. Anyone who says otherwise is selling you misinformation. Lost in the discussion of Di Forti’s bold claim were some of the lesser findings.

As a well-read commentator on this subject, I was fascinated by some of these lesser findings, such as that high-THC cannabis (14 - 15%) increases the incidence of psychosis. That’s not a high THC% compared to what’s popular in dabs and even flower today, so that finding actually interests me as a significant claim within the context of research being published.

Di Forti is wrong for making such a bold, unsupported claim. NORML is wrong for slamming the study without taking the opportunity to elevate the conversation. The net result is that anyone without a degree in the sciences and time to critically examine the Di Forti publication is left with a totally broken and polarized discourse. You can learn more about NORML's response here.

psychosis iStock / nito100

Hope for the Future

The spread of misinformation is hindering but not stopping good research, which is taking place worldwide and will eventually (hopefully for everyone’s sake) establish a factual foundation for a discussion of cannabis.

As for the roots of people’s sharing misinformation which flood the cannabis media vacuum, these issues will settle over time. Some experts suggest that subscription services offered by the old media giants will gain traction. Indeed, some old guard media giants, such as The Wall Street Journal, Seattle Times, and The Economist enforce a free article limit on their websites. It’s more likely a changing of the guard will occur and data-powered algorithms will police information bottlenecks that will filter information according to moderation standards — a whole new can of worms.