This story drew largely from a news release about two studies purporting to show sweeping health benefits of marijuana, based on user-reported data from the Releaf phone app.
There was no critical examination of the underlying evidence, and this story is basically providing free marketing for all sorts of things the authors of the study have financial stakes in.
Medical marijuana is becoming big business that’s thriving on big buzz. Journalists need to scrutinize the evidence behind claims of medical benefits — especially as the cannabis industry attempts to sway public perception in advance of scientific research that will determine whether marijuana does help with certain diseases. This story doesn’t do that.
There’s no discussion about the cost of marijuana.
Also, the story doesn’t mention that the app is free to users.
The story gave some numbers, but provided inadequate data on the quantity of reported benefits for any specific condition.
For example, it reported that 94% of users with medical problems reported a reduction in their symptoms, and users suffering from 27 health conditions “with symptoms ranging from seizures to depression reported a mean reduction in symptoms of 2.8 to 4.6 points on a zero to 10 point scale after consuming cannabis in various forms.”
Only for insomnia did it say that users experienced a “reduction of symptom severity of an average 4.5 points on a zero to 10 point scale.” But even for that condition, no data was provided on how severe the symptoms were on average, and what proportion of people actually saw an improvement.
The story didn’t mention any potential harms of medical marijuana. Instead, it said the use of marijuana “was associated with non-serious side effects.”
In reality, medical marijuana is known to have side effects that can range from minor to serious. These include dizziness, dry mouth, disorientation and confusion, among others. The research in this area is not extensive, particularly related to harms associated with long-term use.
The story doesn’t address numerous limitations with this research and failed to scrutinize the quality of the evidence. Caveats–such as the lack of a control group–were easily found in the study, and these should have been discussed in the story:
“The study was limited primarily by the lack of a control group, e.g., non-cannabis users with the same symptom using a mobile device to indicate their immediate symptom intensity levels. There is also the potential confound of user-selection bias and exclusion of users that failed to complete sessions or even use the Releaf AppTM due to a lack of symptom relief or negative side effects. (It is possible that selection bias could have worked in the opposite way, excluding patients that are already satisfied with their cannabis choices and therefore choose not to use the software app).”
The story doesn’t engage in disease-mongering.
The story used no independent sources and omitted a significant conflict of interest. While the story said the app was “developed by several of the studies’ authors,” it didn’t disclose that the app operates in a partnership with a cannabis advocacy group, Americans for Safe Access, which is funded by various businesses in the marijuana industry.
The maker of the app also has “partnered” with dispensaries to use the data as a “feedback loop” for the marijuana industry.
There was no serious discussion of other available treatments, even those that have been proven to work in rigorous trials.
Rather, the story parroted the news release’s dismissal of prescription drugs as having “negative side effects” and relayed a baseless quote from a study author that claimed marijuana “could systematically replace multi-billion dollar medication industries.”
The story doesn’t explain where medical marijuana is legal and where it isn’t, or whether a prescription is needed to get it.
The story described the app as “the largest repository of user-entered information on the consumption and effect of cannabis use in the United States,” with almost 100,000 entries. It’s not clear if the reporter confirmed this or not.
The story drew largely from a University of New Mexico news release, but also took some data from the studies. It just barely earns a satisfactory rating here.