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Is the Coverage of Medical Marijuana Fair in Newspapers Across America

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Medical marijuana has been legalized in 33 states, and many medical experts now approve of its use for particular conditions that affect Americans over the age of 50. This year, the AARP Board of Directors considered the emerging evidence suggesting that marijuana is helpful in treating such conditions and symptoms, then approved a policy supporting the use of medical marijuana in the states that have legalized it, and supporting further research on medical use of cannabinoids to help alleviate the symptoms of diseases and the side effects of the treatment for diseases.

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State-level marijuana liberalization policies have been evolving for the past five decades, and yet the overall scientific evidence of the impact of these policies is widely believed to be inconclusive. In this review we summarize some of the key limitations of the studies evaluating the effects of decriminalization and medical marijuana laws on marijuana use, highlighting their inconsistencies in terms of the heterogeneity of policies, the timing of the evaluations, and the measures of use being considered. We suggest that the heterogeneity in the responsiveness of different populations to particular laws is important for interpreting the mixed findings from the literature, and we highlight the limitations of the existing literature in providing clear insights into the probable effects of marijuana legalization

Although the federal law has prohibited the use and distribution of marijuana in the United States since 1937, for the past five decades states have been experimenting with marijuana liberalization polices. State decriminalization policies were first passed in the 1970s, patient medical access laws began to get adopted in the 1990s, and more recently states have been experimenting with legalization of recreational markets. This has resulted in a spectrum of marijuana liberalization policies across the United States that is often not fully recognized or considered when conducting evaluations of recent policy changes. Consider for example the state of marijuana policies in the United States at a single point of time.

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Newspaper coverage related to marijuana has been shaped generally by its status as an illicit substance and by the established patterns of reporting criminal behavior, a staple of news content in North American media (Bright et al. 2008, Young 2005)

Research exploring how marijuana use is framed in news reporting suggests that while there have been examples of a balanced and ‘deliberately non-sensationalist’ approach to issues such as cannabis reform, media coverage generally contributes to the ‘symbolic shaming’ of marijuana users. Charges of sensationalism are not unique to stories about substance use: mainstream health reporting has been cited for exacerbating social and political power differentials (Kline 2006), and for contributing to the stigma associated with illness, and for portraying certain conditions as threats to ‘normalcy’ (e.g. mental illness). Media reporting has more than just discursive effects because its representations of illicit drug use primarily as a criminal choice, rather than as a public health concern, have contributed, in part, to the social exclusion of drug users from mainstream society. Focused primarily on representations of the people who grow and sell marijuana, their analysis of the truth claims made by local spokespersons (i.e. law enforcement personnel and politicians) suggests that newspaper stories neglect the structural causes of illicit drug selling, and instead present the issues through a narrow ‘law and order’ discourse that lends itself to calls for harsher legal penalties (Carter 2009). Acevedo (2007) analyzed media messages regarding the UK government’s re-classification of cannabis in 2004 and 2005.

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To conclude, cannabis is currently classified in federal drug laws under Schedule I, the most restrictive level. Moving marijuana to a less-restrictive schedule would boost research on the drug and the development of marijuana pharmaceuticals that doctors could prescribe, experts said. But it would be unlikely to make raw marijuana possession or cultivation by individuals any less illegal under federal law. And it likely would do little to end the standoff between the feds and the states that have legalized cannabis.

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Carter, C. 2009. “Making Residential Cannabis Growing Operations Actionable: A Critical Policy Analysis.” International Journal of Drug Policy 20(4): 371–376.

Bright, S. J., A. Marsh, L. M. Smith, and B. Bishop. 2008. “What can We Say about Substance Use? Dominant Discourses and Narratives Emergent from Australian Media.” Addiction Research and Theory 16(2): 135–148.

Acevedo, B. 2007. “Creating the Cannabis User: A Post-structuralist Analysis of the Re-classification of Cannabis in the United Kingdom (2004–2005).” International Journal of Drug Policy 18(3): 177–186

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