The emerging public discourse on state legalization of marijuana for recreational use in the US: Analysis of news media coverage, 2010-2014

Emma E McGinty, Hillary Samples, Sachini N Bandara, Brendan Saloner, Marcus A Bachhuber, Colleen L Barry
Preventive Medicine 2016, 90: 114-20

OBJECTIVES: US states have begun to legalize marijuana for recreational use. In the absence of clear scientific evidence regarding the likely public health consequences of legalization, it is important to understand how the risks and benefits of this policy are being discussed in the national dialogue. To assess the public discourse on recreational marijuana policy, we assessed the volume and content of US news media coverage of the topic.

METHOD: We analyzed the content of a 20% random sample of news stories published/aired in high circulation/viewership print, television, and Internet news sources from 2010 to 2014 (N=610).

RESULTS: News media coverage of recreational marijuana policy was heavily concentrated in news outlets from the four states (AK, CO, OR, WA) and DC that legalized marijuana for recreational use during the study period. Overall, 53% of news stories mentioned pro-legalization arguments and 47% mentioned anti-legalization arguments. The most frequent pro-legalization arguments posited that legalization would reduce criminal justice involvement/costs (20% of news stories) and increase tax revenue (19%). Anti-legalization arguments centered on adverse public health consequences, such as detriments to youth health and well-being (22%) and marijuana-impaired driving (6%). Some evidence-informed public health regulatory options, like marketing and packaging restrictions, were mentioned in 5% of news stories or fewer.

CONCLUSION: As additional states continue to debate legalization of marijuana for recreational use, it is critical for the public health community to develop communication strategies that accurately convey the rapidly evolving research evidence regarding recreational marijuana policy.

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