Podcast 019: The Headlines Lied

In This Episode: Announcing a new podcast. Another No Longer Weird. And then there are the lying “Marijuana Overdose Death!” headlines: agenda-driven clickbait shockers that many other media outlets (“mainstream, legitimate” and otherwise) jumped on with without checking the facts first. It’s not only stupid and wrong, but completely misses the real problem that really does cause a shocking number of deaths. Plus: an Easter Egg at the end that shows what Kit is like when she doesn’t know the recorder is rolling!

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Show Notes

  • Announcing the Tech Enthusiast Hour podcast, co-hosted and published by Randy Cassingham with several other hosts, now available via iTunes and can be streamed from its web site just like this show. (Episode 1 is here.)
  • No Longer Weird: drug dealers getting a customer’s phone number wrong, and accidentally texting a cop instead. The rejected example: Police: Florida man’s text to drug customer went to cop instead.
  • Like a game of telephone (aka Chinese Whispers), the New York Post attributed their marijuana overdose story to the Reno Gazette Journal, which itself was a copy of a report from KUSA Denver.
  • Newsweek gets it wrong too: the “FDA” report they touted actually links to a DEA Fact Sheet (PDF), which admits there haven’t been any marijuana overdose deaths.
  • But the CDC’s report documents that alcohol causes 88,000 deaths per year, backed up by an NHTSA report showing that drunk drivers are much more likely to be in crashes than pot smokers. So the real problem is…?
  • And this from a guy who has no interest whatever in pot, and who does (occasionally) drink.

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Randy: Welcome to Uncommon Sense, the Podcast companion to the ThisIsTrue.com newsletter with the mission to promote more thinking in the world. I’m Randy Cassingham…

Kit: And I’m Kit Cassingham.

Randy: Before I begin, a little announcement for those of you who like podcasts. And you’re listening to this, so you probably like podcasts. The announcement is: another podcast. I’m co-hosting and publishing a new podcast for tech enthusiasts. It’s called the Tech Enthusiasts Hour, and a little secret: it will be anything but an hour long. It might be shorter, it might be longer, but there will be several hosts — preferably three or four — doing the show on a rotating basis, and we’ll be welcoming guests, too. We’ll talk about tech, including news, reviews, and maybe a rant once in awhile. And every host has a lot of experience in tech. The main hosts found that when we got together, we had a lot to say about technology, so we decided to get together every week online and talk about whatever interests us — and record it so you can listen in. You can find it on iTunes by searching Tech Enthusiast Hour, and of course there’s a web site at TEHpodcast.com — and the first show is already posted there. There will be links on this Show Page too.

Kit: You know, I have listened to you guys recording this, and you have so much fun.

Randy: It’s a blast!

Kit: Well, it sounds like it, and some of the topics I’ve had some familiarity with and knowledge, and I’ve learned something. Occasionally I haven’t known anything about the topic and learned something, and had fun along with you guys.

Randy: Well there you go.

Kit: But I did it silently.

Randy: Yeah, that’s kind of like when you’re a listener you do it silently — at least as far as we’re concerned: we don’t hear you!

Kit: As far as you’re concerned I’m silent, but—

Randy: You could be screaming for all we know!

Kit: I talk a lot, yes.

Randy: And, you know, there is a little humor in there too.

Kit: What’s great is you guys have so much fun, and so much to share about it, and it’s great.

Randy: And we’ve know each other for a long time, and it’s a lot of fun: TEHpodcast.com. So next, before I go on a semi rant about a story from this week’s newsletter, I’m going to do this week’s No Longer Weird segment first.

And you’ll note I didn’t go for the echo effect there: I’m tired of it, so I expect listeners are too. But this week’s No Longer Weird story is: drug dealers setting up a meeting with a customer, getting the phone number wrong, and accidentally texting a cop instead of the customer to set up the meeting.

Kit: Oh, I hate that kind of auto-error!

Randy: Well, it doesn’t even help when the cop who gets the message happens to be a detective. News 13 in Orlando — yeah, this one’s from Florida — reports that West Melbourne Police Det. Harvey Whitney said, “In my time in this career, I’ve never had that happen.” And Detective Whitney has been on the job for 20 years, and he got one of these texts. Well, maybe he didn’t have a cell phone 20 years ago, but it happens so often these days, it has to have some really unusual aspect to it to be weird enough for This is True.

Kit: When I text I make mistakes. I really hate it when I text…. I remember texting a friend a note that was intended for you…

Randy: I did that once too.

Kit: My friend never said anything, so I don’t know if he appreciated being told I loved him…

Randy: Uh oh!

Kit: …or if he was so embarrassed by it…

Randy: Or did his wife intercept that? Hmmm.

Kit: No, we were in a meeting. I was trying to send it to you, but…. Oh well! So Randy, was the guy selling pot?

Randy: Why yes he was. Detective Whitney made an appointment to meet the 20-year-old dealer, who was quickly arrested.

Kit: Well this sure makes a good segue to the story we’re going to talk about tonight, doesn’t it?

Randy: Uh yes, that’s true. This week we’re discussing a story from issue 1223 of the newsletter, which will be included on the Show Page at thisistrue.com/podcast19. It’s called Second Hand Smokescreen, and it illustrates something that really drives me crazy about the news business. I’m going to read it to you verbatim.

One of the facts that marijuana legalization proponents like to point out is that even the federal Drug Enforcement Administration admits there’s never been a single documented death from a marijuana overdose. So when a medical case report published in the journal Clinical Practice and Cases in Emergency Medicine noted that a child had died in a case “associated” with cannabis in Colorado, where marijuana is legal, headlines blared that the “first marijuana overdose death” had been recorded. Nope. First, the boy was not any sort of pot “user” — he was just 11 months old, and lived in a hotel room with his parents, who admitted they had marijuana when a blood test on the boy found THC, presumably from second-hand smoke. To make things clear after the headlines went viral, Thomas Nappe, one of the two doctors who wrote the report, said it categorically: “We are absolutely not saying that marijuana killed that child.” Nappe has the credentials to know: he’s the director of medical toxicology at St. Luke’s University Health Network in Bethlehem, Pa. The infant was apparently already in poor health; the actual cause of death was myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart muscle, and the doctors just wanted to suggest that other doctors consider what relationship, if any, marijuana had in any unusual deaths, Nappe said.

And my tagline on the story: But hey, let’s keep repeating this faulty conclusion so we can ignore the documentation that fully legal alcohol kills 88,000 people in the U.S. alone — per year.

Kit: So I read the 9News article on this, and if I understood correctly in my reading, there was question that perhaps the child had gotten hold of some edibles.

Randy: We’ll get to that.

Kit: OK, because edibles are a different story.

Randy: Yes they are.

Kit: But…

Randy: We’ll talk about that.

Kit: OK.

Randy: So I skim a number of news sources every week to gather stories for This is True, and I kept seeing that headline again and again. Here’s some examples. USA Today: “Colorado doctors claim baby boy is first marijuana overdose death”. That’s the headline. Newsweek: “Can You Overdose on Marijuana? Baby Becomes First Ever Death from Ingesting Too Much Cannabis, Doctors Claim”. And the one that I used to illustrate the story on the Show Page, from the New York Daily News, “Baby boy is first marijuana overdose death, doctors claim”.

The two doctors who wrote the case report in the medical journal — and let’s be clear: a case report is definitely not a study of any kind, just a report — are based at the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center in Colorado.

As I researched the story further to talk about it in the podcast, it appears that the doctors that treated the boy think that his blood levels of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana that produces its high, were high enough that his ingestion was probably not from second-hand smoke, but rather probably due to oral intake, such as so-called “edibles” like a THC-laced gummy bear. But that’s not something that could kill a kid either. Colorado emergency room physician Dr. Noah Kaufman says, “There’s so many things that cause the problem that this poor baby had, that we’re not even close to saying it was definitively a marijuana overdose.” That “problem,” again, was myocardidis, the boy’s actual cause of death. Dr. Kaufman says, “Allergies can cause this. What if the kiddo was allergic to the carnauba wax, or whatever is in the gummy that’s not the marijuana?”

Kit: Or what if the kid is allergic to the cleaning supplies that were used around his house?

Randy: Yeah.

Kit: I mean, I’m chemically sensitive.

Randy: So here’s the thing that really bothers me about this chain of stories that led to all these headlines. The New York Post gave its source as …the Reno Gazette Journal. Does that newspaper in Nevada have reporters in Denver? Nope: their story — I went and looked — was actually a reprint of a story by KUSA TV in Denver. So why did the New York Post mention the Reno newspaper at all? Why didn’t they just go to KUSA TV’s web site, where I found the story, and get the report directly from them? Not that they necessarily got it right either, but it would avoid the “telephone game” of the original story being interpreted by a newspaper and then that being interpreted by another newspaper, and so on, and so on, echoing the erroneous headline again and again.

Kit: Or magnifying it!

Randy: Sometimes. Yeah, good point.

Now Newsweek’s report at least said the doctors’ “conclusions are controversial,” and they did pull some quotes from KUSA TV in Denver. But what exactly was the conclusion the two doctors actually put in their medical journal case report? I looked it up: “We believe there exists a plausible relationship that justifies further research into cannabis-associated cardiotoxicity.” That’s it: it’s plausible that there could be something that justifies further research, and certainly not a conclusion even close to “We have proof of the first overdose death from pot.” Yet that’s exactly what the headlines said.

Kit: I love it that they concluded that more research is needed, because as a medic, I know that we’re seeing a variety of— an increase of cases of what marijuana does to adults, and it’s important to know especially what it does to little kids because they’re around it probably accidentally, but even intentionally.

Randy: Well they’re around it because their parents are stupid and don’t lock their stash up.

Kit: Or they share it because they think it’s cute that the kids—

Randy: Well that’s child abuse: that’s sick.

Kit: I agree, it is. And accidental exposure is child abuse too. But I love the conclusion “Let’s research that.”

Randy: Well here’s something else that Newsweek has in its article that’s still online, I looked at it tonight. It says, “No death from a pot overdose has ever been reported, according to the FDA.” — the FDA is the federal Food and Drug Administration. They link that word “FDA” to the actual report from the DEA — the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, a totally different federal agency, and its so-called “drug data sheet” on marijuana, which, yes, clearly states it very succinctly, “No death from overdose of marijuana has been reported.” But what sloppy reporting from Newsweek on what would be an important story, if only it was true. They can’t even get the federal agencies right!

Kit: Don’t bore me with the facts! So where did your 88,000 alcohol deaths come from? Where’d that number come from?

Randy: That’s a valid question. That came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Here’s the relevant paragraph from their Data and Statistics section of their web site, which I’ll link to in the Show Notes: “Excessive alcohol use is a leading cause of preventable death. This dangerous behavior accounted for approximately 88,000 deaths per year from 2006–2010, and accounted for 1 in 10 deaths among working-age adults aged 20–64 years. Excessive alcohol use shortened the lives of those who died by about 30 years. These deaths were due to health effects from drinking too much over time, such as breast cancer, liver disease, and heart disease, and health effects from consuming a large amount of alcohol in a short period of time, such as violence, alcohol poisoning, and motor vehicle crashes.” Those are shocking numbers.

Kit: They are.

Randy: That’s crazy.

Kit: And that’s just deaths. That doesn’t even count the, the…

Randy: The wrecked that they’re causing before they die, absolutely. The car crashes, the DUI arrests.

Kit: And falling down stairs and hurting themselves.

Randy: Yeah, you and I have run on [ambulance] calls like that.

Kit: We have, and even when I was a bed & breakfast innkeeper. I personally didn’t have that experience, but I had innkeeping friends who did. And what do you do with your guest who’s fallen down stairs in their room,

Randy: Well, you call 911 when you find them.

Kit: If you find them before they — sometimes they get up and keep drinking.

Randy: Yeah. Now, I do use a little bit of alcohol myself, on average a drink or two per week, so I’m not some temperance lecturer here. And while I did vote for Colorado to become the first state to legalize recreational marijuana, because I believe adults should have the choice whether to use it, I’ve exercised my now-legal choice myself — and my choice was to not use it: I’ve never used pot, not even once, before or after it became legal. But if I was getting chemo for cancer, and it helped with pain or to keep my appetite up to help me fight off the disease? You bet I’d use it, and everyone deserves that choice.

Kit: I also voted for that for Colorado because like you, I believe in choice. And I’ve chosen to quit drinking, so I don’t have alcohol. But as you know, I don’t lecture others about “the evils of drink.” I actually feel like a pusher. “Hey Randy! You want another drink?”

Randy: It’s true! You say “Hey, are you going to have an adult beverage tonight?” And I say “uh, no, I was planning on having water.”

Kit: Well join me in the water, then.

Randy: Now some people think marijuana should be illegal because of impaired driving. It is true that smoking pot before driving increases the odds of crashing by 83%, which sounds pretty shocking …until you compare that to a blood-alcohol level of just .05%, not even the .08% that’s the threshold for drunk driving. .05% increases the odds of crashing by 675%.

Kit: Wowzo! I had no idea.

Randy: Yeah. Now, where did I get that? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. I’ll link to that report on the Show Page too.

Now, I can get more and more reports and quote more and more statistics, but I think the point is made: we can totally misinterpret a minor medical case report, and scream headlines about the dangers of pot, but they’re easily disproved even with government statistics. And when you compare those statistics with alcohol, that’s legal, and it’s clear that drug — and yes, alcohol is a drug — is far worse that pot, why, again, are we spending tax money to put drug users in prison? Ask any cop who he or she would rather fight to bring into custody: a drunk, or a pot smoker. Not one cop I’ve asked that question of has ever, not once, chosen “a drunk”!

Kit: Well no! The druggie, the pot user, is much easier to fight, because they’re mellow!

Randy: Well, and basically we don’t have to fight them. I mean, I’ve had to have the cops back me up on medical calls when we have a drunk there.

Kit: Or severe drugs. We’ve seen or heard of horrendous fights with other drugs on board.

Randy: Like PCP is the one that hurt a couple of cops not too long ago here. But pot? No. They’re just totally mellow. And yeah, too much mellow can get you into a car crash, but nothing like a drunk driver.

Kit: So we’re fighting the wrong battle, aren’t we?

Randy: As we often do in this country.

Kit: So one of my observations about this article is that maybe through emotion, who knows where it comes from, people are connecting two facts and putting them together. Yes they may coincide, but there’s not a cause and effect. And that faulty thinking gets us into a lot of trouble in a lot of areas of life.

Randy: And that’s what the doctors said in the first place, that there’s an “association” — we have THC, and we have a dead kid. That’s an association, that’s not a cause and effect, like you just said.

Kit: Well, what was the phase of the moon when the child died?

Randy: Yeah, was it a full moon? That clearly caused it, right? So the story we’re discussing is fairly long by This is True standards: about 250 words. And even though we’re covering that “in more depth,” there’s still a lot more in KUSA’s version of the story, like cautioning that the doctors’ thoughts were “controversial” and giving quote, “Some important context and advice.” And the main advice was lock your stash up, don’t let your kids get anywhere near it. C’mon! But, the headline writers didn’t seem to pay any attention to that. They wanted to trumpet that headline.

Kit: That is the point: they wanted that headline, and ignored all the other facts.

Randy: And this was not “fake news,” this was really legitimate, mainstream news sources. They’re not doing themselves any favors by rushing to print to get that headline out, when it’s totally, completely wrong, and even their source makes that clear.

Kit: You know if it had really been a legitimate death because of the marijuana, I would think that news would have made headlines much more quickly, because this death was two years ago.

Randy: Yeah, this happened two years ago, and they were pondering this, they were thinking about it, [and] they basically just said, “hey, there’s an association here, it’s plausible that there’s some kind of cause and effect maybe — let’s study this.” Not “hey, look what we have: we have the first confirmed marijuana overdose death.”

Kit: Right.

Randy: They did not say that, yet that’s what the headlines said again and again and again. Just crazy.

So if you have a story to tell about headlines not supported by the details in the stories, or otherwise wish to comment on this podcast, let us know on the Show Page at thisistrue.com/podcast19

You can support the Uncommon Sense podcast — and the This is True newsletter — on Patreon. See Patreon.com/ThisIsTrue

I’m Randy Cassingham…

And we’ll talk at you later.

[Easter Egg]

5 thoughts on “Podcast 019: The Headlines Lied

  1. Most likely his parents were so doped up they didn’t notice the baby was sick. In my opinion its no different than the kids who are neglected when their parents abuse alcohol.

    The source story notes the parents said the baby was increasingly ill over 4-6 days, and then they took him to a hospital. Doesn’t strike me as “so doped up they didn’t notice.” -rc

  2. To be fair, if the cause of death is neglect because the parents were under the influence, then it is a marijuana related death. The article suggests but does not say that is the case. While neglect due to drugs is a side effect we must address, we truly have our priorities out when we fail to address the more egregious versions — alcohol and other drugs — which cause more direct deaths. When however have we ever worried about statistics? We as a country focus where advertisers tell us to. It is too easy to make us forget a subject by posting too many articles — so we quit reading them.

    There’s no suggestion in any of the stories I’ve reviewed that the boy’s death is due to neglect — something that definitely “should” have come out by now (considering that the death was two years ago; it’s only recently that it was “declared” a “death by marijuana overdose” — by reactionary reporters, rather than a pathologist). Absolutely there are way too many cases of child neglect, even directly resulting in death, but that wasn’t even suggested here. All that said, yes, Americans are easily distracted, which is one of the reasons I like to point out the value of thinking about the issues raised in the stories! -rc

  3. Great Podcast. Interesting and timely subject. There was no doubt you were both having fun.

    Thanks, Bill — glad you enjoyed it. -rc

  4. A few months ago, I spoke at my local Planning Commission when it discussed relaxing marijuana regulations. The anti-marijuana, pro-alcohol public was making the same arguments about marijuana that would be just as valid if they’d said “alcohol” instead. I expressed my frustration that marijuana seems to be perceived as “the wrong drug”. As soon as I said that, there was a sudden air of “Oh, no he di’int!” I think the Commission was ultimately hung and the City Council somewhat relaxed regulations, but not quite as much as I’d hoped.

    What really made this special: this was in wine country!

    Heh! Yeah, watching governance by bias can be pretty entertaining sometimes, if you can keep from getting too angry! -rc

  5. For loads of insight relating to this and related topics, just google “graphs of unrelated things” and you could really have some fun.

    The most famous site is Spurious Correlations, which is now a book, too. I’ve spent way too much time on the site, learning things like U.S. spending on science, space, and technology correlates VERY strongly (99.79%!) with suicides by hanging, strangualation, and suffocation. Which one “caused” the other? Neither! -rc

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