Diane Rehm, who I hear once had pretensions of being a journalist of some kind, conducted a maddeningly uncritical, borderline fawning interview with drug warrior Joe Califano on her program today. My expectations at this stage are actually pretty low. I didn’t expect Rehm to probe terribly deeply into Califano’s dire warnings about the terrifying drug scourge or its causes. When callers supporting decriminalization questioned whether prohibition was worth all the myriad harms that flow from it—from funding criminals and terrorists to making the drugs themselves more dangerous—I didn’t expect her to press him on whether reflexively invoking “the children” each time constituted anything like an adequate cost benefit analysis. So great is my Buddhist tolerance that I didn’t even bat an eyelash when she failed to wonder whether the burgeoning number of teens in treatment for marijuana—cited as (the only) proof of the drug’s harmfulness and addictive power—wasn’t primarily a measure of our own panic.
But I was a bit agog when someone pointed out that the oft-repeated claim about the far greater potency and harmfulness of today’s pot is an utter canard. The caller calmly, and in some detail, explained why the studies on which that beloved claim is based don’t actually provide an adequate measure. Since Califano couldn’t actually respond to that, he fell back on regurgitating the preposterous claim that “the characteristics of cannabis are no longer that different from those of other plant-based drugs such as cocaine and heroin.” (The UN says so!) Now, never mind that this flies wildly in the face of just about every other reputable assessment of the relative harms of various recreational drugs. Anyone who’s had any kind of contact with users of those three drugs knows that this is not only wrong, it’s hysterical-peals-of-laughter-inducing preposterous. Even if you’re not high.
A dignified silence would have done Rehm no credit at this point, but it at least would have fallen short of being actively embarrassing. But the warbling eminence grise of public radio couldn’t restrain herself: In the wake of this incoherent, non-responsive response to a detailed, factual objection, she piped up to assert that her guest, by dint of his long experience in the trenches of the drug war, surely had the right information.
So Diane, how about getting one of your interns to fact check easily verifiable claims like this before waxing authoritative in support of the ideologue of the week? Obviously you’ve lost any interest in behaving like a real journalist, but maybe one of them would like to give it a shot.
Update: Apparently, Califano’s long experience in the field consists largely of an extensive history of fraud as the head of a bogus drug research group that’s bought itself offices at Columbia but eschews the ordinary peer review process, allowing them to churn out stats that would be truly alarming if they weren’t, you know, false. More on Califano’s phony “research” organization, with a roundup of links to other material, here. It’s incredible anyone still takes this person seriously, and makes Rehm’s bowing and scraping all the more embarrassing and inexcusable.