Portland’s Congressman Loves Pot, Hates Science

This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.

Ahh, Portland: The city that shakes its fist in defiance at the 21st Century by stubbornly refusing to fluoridate its water supply and believing that wi-fi is killing its children. Given that Portland’s citizens have a troubled relationship with reality, it perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise that the city’s congressman does, too.

Earl Blumenauer, who represents the City of Roses in Washington, D.C., has some rather unconventional priorities for a federal politician. Making his list of the most pressing issues facing the nation ismarijuana reform. Like geeky PBS traveler Rick Steves, Mr. Blumenauer has devoted a significant portion of his existence to the legalization of pot smoking.

Not everybody in government shares his adoration of the wacky tobacky. According to CBS, the Chief of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Chuck Rosenberg, recently said:

“What really bothers me is the notion that marijuana is also medicinal — because it’s not… We can have an intellectually honest debate about whether we should legalize something that is bad and dangerous, but don’t call it medicine — that is a joke.”

From a scientific standpoint, the word joke is a bit strong. Marijuana has legitimate medicinal uses, although the benefits are regularly hyped and exaggerated. The drug is not a magical cure-all for the world’s pain and suffering, though it may help reduce the number of deaths from overdoses of opioid painkillers. Mr. Rosenberg’s claim that marijuana is bad is certainly backed up by plenty of scientific evidence, though it is probably not as unhealthy as tobacco. And while his claim that pot is dangerous is slightly preachy, it is still defensible. Certainly, teenagers should not use the substance. Overall, Mr. Rosenberg earns a B-/C+ on scientific accuracy.

Congressman Blumenauer, however, sees things differently. In a peculiar outburst on Facebook, he writes:

Let’s examine some of his specific claims in more detail.

“Chuck Rosenberg’s views don’t represent those of the Administration.”

Well, actually they do. The Drug Enforcement Administration is part of the Department of Justice, which answers directly to President Obama. The Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, appointed Mr. Rosenburg to his current role as DEA Chief.

“He is completely out of step with… growing scientific and overwhelming testimonial evidence.”

Wrong. The scientific consensus has been very measured and cautious in its assessment of the benefits of medical marijuana. A literature review published in JAMA merely concludes the existence of “moderate-quality evidence to support the use of cannabinoids for the treatment of chronic pain and spasticity.” All other supposed medicinal uses for marijuana were supported by “low-quality” evidence. That is hardly a ringing endorsement. The existing data is anything but “uncontestable,” as the congressman says.

And who cares about testimonial evidence? Flimsy anecdotes might pass as deep wisdom for a lawyer like Mr. Blumenauer, but they mean absolutely nothing to a scientist. His comment betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the scientific method. It gets worse.

“I’ve met with countless people whose lives have been transformed because of the relief it has offered.”

Now, this is getting obnoxious. Testimonials mean nothing. Period. Anybody with a modicum of scientific training understands that. For an excellent example of how dangerous and misleading anecdotal evidence can be, watch the appallingly bad movie Erin Brockovich, which glorified the pseudoscientific meanderings of a legal clerk who helped scam Pacific Gas & Electric out of $333 million. How? By using anecdotal evidence to accuse the company of causing cancer in the residents of a small California town. This and other cancer-scare stories like it have been thoroughly debunked.

Thus, the congressman’s reliance on anecdotes to hype the medicinal properties of marijuana lands him a solid F on scientific accuracy.

“This guy doesn’t have a clue.”

Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones. Being stoned, however, ought to be the congressman’s legal choice.