Last week, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey was the subject of an incident of media bias involving marijuana legalization. It was in some respects a minor incident. But it is a small case offering lessons about both media bias and decriminalizing cannabis.
This month, pro-pot advocates, backed by the burgeoning marijuana industry, launched a new push to legalize marijuana for adult recreational use in Arizona in 2020. A prior legalization ballot initiative lost by a mere 67,021 votes out of 2.53 million votes cast in 2016. Cannabis supporters believe the state’s experience with medical marijuana has diffused voter concerns since then. In February, a poll found 52 percent of Arizona voters favored legalization (albeit with a 4 percent margin of error).
To pre-empt the ballot initiative, Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich wants the legislature to debate and enact a law decriminalizing adult marijuana use. Brnovich is concerned that if legalization happens by initiative, the state’s Voter Protection Act would prevent any amendment, except by a 75 percent vote in the State House and Senate, and only allow amendments that further the purpose of the measure (Arizona’s courts have strictly enforced this requirement).
Ducey has long opposed recreational marijuana use. During the 2016 campaign, he remarked, “I don’t think that any state became stronger by being stoned.” He also warned against the unintended consequences of legalization in states like Washington and Colorado, adding that edible cannabis had infiltrated high schools.
Accordingly, Arizonans were surprised when Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services reported in his story about Brnovich’s effort that “Gov. Doug Ducey, who remains personally opposed to recreational use, said he is open to the possibility of signing such a law as an alternative to an initiative.” Ducey never said this.
As tends to happen in the internet age, the inaccurate report was amplified by a column in the Arizona Republic, the Phoenix Business Journal, and social media. Ducey’s communications director took to Twitter to correct the record with a transcript of the interview:
For those of you interested in seeing what the governor's views are on this issue – here's the entire transcript of the governor's discussion with Howie. https://t.co/D6KKDAfIdd pic.twitter.com/yTAagVxKE2
— Patrick Ptak (@PatPtak) July 23, 2019
In the transcript, Ducey says he would like to see the language of any proposal, but makes clear that he thinks legalization is not a good idea and that he had not changed his opinion on the subject. Indeed, the governor reiterated his prior warning about the unintended consequences of decriminalization and repeated that he does not think any state ever got stronger being stoned.
Ducey’s pushback worked. Fisher’s second version of the story is rewritten to report: “And even Gov. Doug Ducey, who said he needs to see any legalization proposal before commenting, said he is concerned about the unchangeable nature of passing laws at the ballot box. But the governor said he remains personally opposed to adult use.”
All’s well that ends well, right? Well, not entirely. The transcript is sufficiently clear (and the tone sufficiently contentious) that Ducey’s administration should not have had to clean up a story from a reporter who seemed invested in the idea that Ducey should be teaming up with Brnovich to enable decriminalization legislation.
Beyond the governor’s personal opposition, the aforementioned February poll indicated about 58 percent of Arizona Republicans opposed legalizing recreational marijuana. Misrepresenting Ducey’s position probably irritated him, but it also caused a potential political problem with his supporters.
Nationally, the picture is almost the reverse. A recent CBS poll showed 56 percent of Republicans favor legalizing recreational marijuana. Sixty-five percent of Americans generally favor decriminalization, with a similar number believing pot is less dangerous than most other drugs. The general public believes marijuana is less harmful than alcohol by a 51-6 margin.
Yet some of the data on this issue support Ducey’s position, primarily on the issue of driving while high. According to the Washington Post, “Surveys of regular marijuana users in Colorado and Washington state, where recreational cannabis use is legal, found that almost none of them thought marijuana use impaired their driving, while they believed drinking alcohol did.”
But marijuana-related traffic deaths increased by 48 percent in Colorado after the state legalized recreational use of the drug. A study from the University of California San Francisco found hospital visits due to car accidents, alcohol abuse, and drug overdoses increased in Colorado in the two years after the state legalized cannabis. And a recent study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found cannabis-related emergency department visits at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital rose more than threefold from 2012 to 2016.
Of course, those of a more libertarian bent may argue these are the costs of freedom. These were the questions at issue when alcohol prohibition was repealed. Any freedom, whether it’s religious liberty, free speech, the right to keep and bear arms, the right to remain silent, and so on can carry societal costs. In this view, the abuse of our freedoms is a matter to be handled by the justice system.
On the other hand, libertarians respect that people have the right to be wrong. Even those who disagree with Ducey can agree journalists should not misrepresent his views and arguments merely because they are becoming less popular and he is a Republican governor.