Attorney General Jeff Sessions (Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images)

Op-ed: Colorado officials should speak out on fake marijuana data used by feds

Government-rooted misinformation has long been central to the very existence of War on Drugs. From government-sponsored anti-marijuana campaigns to the familiar talking points used by politicians over the decades, the Drug War has always been fueled by alleged facts that have no basis in reality.

The federal government’s misinformation campaign is still alive and well, even in these heady post-prohibition days of 2017. And it’s high time Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and state Attorney General Cynthia Coffman do as their counterparts in Washington state have already done and call out this misinformation for what it is: unreliable, misleading and inaccurate.

As most state and federal research documenting the impact of legalized marijuana show encouraging results reflecting responsible regulation, one federally funded agency is still producing reports that paint a very different reality.

Reports from High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas throughout the country have inspired a successful anti-legalization campaign in Arizona, a recent USA Today op-ed under the headline “Marijuana devastated Colorado, don’t legalize it nationally” and much of United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ ongoing attacks on the country’s legal cannabis industry.

The only problem: The reports are “garbage,” according to John Hudak, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Brookings Institute who studies (maintaining a neutral position) marijuana legalization.

Hudak isn’t the only one criticizing the HIDTA reports. After Sessions penned concerned letters to legal cannabis states quoting statistics from HIDTA reports, Washington Governor Jay Inslee and state Attorney General Bob Ferguson responded sharply to the nation’s highest law enforcement official by saying the data he was using was “unreliable” and “inaccurate.”

“It is clear that our goals regarding health and safety are in step with the goals Attorney General Sessions has articulated,” wrote Inslee. “Unfortunately he is referring to incomplete and unreliable data that does not provide the most accurate snapshot of our efforts since the marketplace opened in 2014.”

Added Ferguson in his own statement: “I was disappointed by Attorney General Sessions’ letter, which relies on incomplete, inaccurate and out-of-date information on the status of Washington’s marijuana regulations.”

Ferguson later told Vice: “Misleading information does not produce good policy.”

So Hickenlooper and Coffman, I urge you to compare HIDTA’s findings with those of the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, conducted by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s Monitoring the Future study. I urge you both to compare the HIDTA data to that of the Colorado State Patrol and the state departments of Transportation and Public Safety — and ask yourself why these agencies’ data sets vary so wildly from those of HIDTA.

The HIDTA program was created by Congress in 1988 to fight drug trafficking and production, and the country’s 28 HIDTAs still do important work — including the HIDTA Heroin Response Strategy now covering 20 states through partnerships with public health agencies and public safety groups.

But as The Cannabist reporter Alicia Wallace reported earlier this month:

“The HIDTA reports … have come under criticism in the past, and the law enforcement agencies compiling them are ‘notorious for using data out of context or drawing grand conclusions that data ultimately do not support,’ Hudak said.

‘This is an inappropriate use of data from the attorney general and shows an obvious disinterest in seeking the right answer that can advance effective public policy,’ he said. ‘Instead, Mr. Sessions is committed to cherry-picking information that fit into his worldview. When it comes to Mr. Sessions and marijuana, ignorance seems to be a pre-existing condition, and he has no interest in seeking treatment for that ailment.'”

We now know the failed War on Drugs was built on a lie from the very top of our federal government infrastructure, an embarrassing chapter in American history that destroyed untold lives. And now state lawmakers have the opportunity to publicly discredit the inaccurate government-funded data that is still plaguing fact-based debates today — and in the process help their constituents better understand marijuana legalization’s actual impacts.

Now more than ever we need reliable data on the impact of cannabis legalization, and it’s your responsibilities, Hickenlooper and Coffman, to help your constituents distinguish the trusted information sources from the ideologically slanted reports described by your peers as unreliable, misleading and inaccurate.

Ricardo Baca is the founder of The Cannabist and a veteran journalist who covers the marijuana industry for The Daily Beast. His content agency Grasslands works primarily with businesses and individuals in the cannabis and hemp industries.

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