Feature

Kiwi Cops Caught Screwing with Cannabis Data

By Jade Green

Kiwi Cops Caught Screwing with Cannabis Data

Not only in the United States of America but around the world governments and media are focusing on cannabis: revenue, legislation, regulations, monitoring, safety measures and reports. It is impossible to consume all the information you see about cannabis, and how do you know what to believe?

Many folks believe cannabis can be used to improve quality of life and to save the lives of sick people, while others refuse to see cannabis as anything but an evil drug. Don’t trust everything you read, though; both cannabis enthusiasts and anti-cannabis groups want you in their nest. A lot of anti-cannabis information is constructed from old, twisted data and based largely on what are now considered lies. I’m going to tell you about one giant lie that the New Zealand government constructed, all to convince the citizens of NZ that cannabis was costing them $30 million per year in hospital visits.

In 2007, the National Drug Intelligence Bureau (NDIB) in New Zealand produced and released an 111-page report called New Cannabis: The Cornerstone of Illicit Drug Harm in New Zealand in conjunction with the New Zealand police force, Kiwi customs and the national health department. A surprising figure emerged from the police intelligence report: It claimed cannabis drained New Zealand of $30 million annually due to cannabis-related hospital emergency room visits. In fact, the report claimed that each year more than 2,000 Kiwis visited the emergency department at the hospital as a result of cannabis use. The figures did not seem reasonable: New Zealand has a population of about 4 million, which would mean one out of every 2,000 Kiwis visited an emergency room each year for something related to marijuana.

Steve Dawson, a Canterbury sociology graduate residing in West Auckland, thought the figures and claims seemed off as well. When the report was released, Dawson had some free time to assess the report, and it was then that his quest for the truth began. The run-around he got was terrifying, adding to his suspicion that the figures were manipulated. Dawson invested five years of his life getting to the bottom of the figures in that report: He thought it was nonsense from the start, but what he discovered were lies.

The author of the New Cannabis report, Les Maxwell, stated that cannabis was an “increasing threat” and a gateway drug for young people. Its increasing strength was causing more young folk to land themselves in hospitals following a bad “trip” on cannabis, and "cannabis-related hospital admissions between 2001 and 2005 exceeded admissions for opiates, amphetamines and cocaine combined." On face value alone, this seems exaggerated since opiate, amphetamine and cocaine hospital admissions or deaths are commonly reported, while cannabis-related deaths have never occurred. Unlike the other substances mentioned above, it is virtually impossible to have a fatal overdose on cannabis. To do so, a person would need to consume about 1,500 pounds of cannabis in 15 minutes. If you’ve ever toked up, you know this is impossible. And yet cannabis is responsible for more medical emergencies than all of these other substances combined?

Reading information about this report, you might notice that those figures seem… off. They seem skewed. They seem extreme. New Zealand is not a country known for a rampart cannabis problem, so the idea that one in every 2,000 folks turn up at the hospital each year for treatment is concerning.

Steve Dawson wanted to know how so many folks ended up hospitalized. In 2010, Dawson attempted to obtain information from the Ministry of Health under the Official Information Act. They came up empty handed, unable to produce any data on which the report was based. Strange, right? They sent him off to the NDIB, which also seemed evasive. The NDIB would not or could not produce the raw data that Dawson had the right to see. He was told that, perhaps, it had been incorrectly saved or filed. When Dawson trekked back to the Ministry of Health, they informed him that the information was indeed lost. How convenient, right?

Steve Dawson knew something was up, and he was relentless in his pursuit of the truth. In July 2013, he got hold of the file from the Ministry of Health. “I had to get pretty cross with Health to finally get the file,” he said.

What he found in the Maxwell report was that the data had apparently been intentionally skewed to make cannabis appear much more sinister and expensive than it truly was. How had they altered the data? In layperson terms, a worldwide coding system called ICD-10 records hospitalizations and their reasons. These codes cover the spectrum of reasons someone might be admitted to hospital, with codes for diseases, social circumstances, symptoms, complaints, ailments, habits and other things. When someone is released from hospital, a clinical coder interprets the Doctor’s notes and identifies a primary and secondary reason for admission. The NDIB report had conveniently searched for cannabis-related codes only and then included them as “primary” and “secondary” reasons for admission.

This doesn’t sound SO bad until you learn of specific examples in which that data was twisted to make cannabis a problematic substance. For example, in another interview, Dawson identified a woman admitted to a hospital during childbirth for complications relating to the birthing process. The data relating to the patient showed her “primary” reason for admission was birthing complications and obstetrics, but somewhere in the data, the code for cannabis-dependence (F122) was also used. That F122 code is the only data that mattered to the Maxwell researchers, and the cost of this woman’s hospital visit, for childbirth, was attributed to cannabis.

"It's ludicrous," said Dawson. "It was a birthing matter, it's got nothing to do with cannabis.”

He discovered that, rather than 2,000 hospital admissions per year related to cannabis, the number was closer to 200 or 250. The exaggeration from 2000 to 250 is huge, and the New Zealand Ministry of Health supported the spread of this misinformation!

Dawson’s hard work paid off eventually—the Maxwell report is no longer available on the New Zealand police website or internal intranet. Though Dawson’s time and effort paid off, the larger issue remains: Fear-based reports are constructed with false information and lies and then fed to the media and uneducated citizens around the world in an effort to convince them that cannabis cannot help.

Even after the report was officially removed, Dawson continued to pursue information on the raw data from the Maxwell report. Eventually, in August of 2015, he was handed documents which included an email from Simon Ross, the Ministry of Health's manager of analysis and reporting. Ross had met with police NDIB members and discouraged the use of ICD-10 data in the report, suggesting that the NDIB focus on hospital admissions in which a drug-related diagnosis was the cause for admittance.

"Presentation of numbers of primary and secondary diagnoses in the same graph are problematic because they imply to the reader that these have the same significance. Since this is demonstrably not true... this practice should be avoided," he wrote in his email. Translate: Don’t use the data like this. It isn’t right, true or correct. Nor is it fair.

Ross also stated that the estimates for cannabis-related costs due to hospital admission were incorrect because they were based on the “secondary” reason or symptom for hospital admission. He stated that an annual cost of $25 to $30 million in hospital visits for cannabis was wrong, and that $2.5 million was “much more realistic.”

Dawson, and many others like him, believe the authorities intentionally alter this kind of information used in reports about cannabis. If people continue to buy into the belief that cannabis is bad, the police and government have more control over its citizenry. Altering raw data on health to suit the fearmongering needs of your Ministry of Health does seem a little over the top, New Zealand.

Jade is a professional writer and editor. She listens to records, reads, and spends time outdoors exploring, causing mischief and running. 

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