Journalistic Integrity

As writers and journalists, we have an obligation to tell the story: accurately, completely and truthfully. Good writers don't have to embellish to make a story gripping. By being truthful and accurate in our reporting, the words tell the story. To do otherwise means we're no better than Fox News and The National Enquirer. We may as well skip the process of interviewing and just write a bunch of crap about someone. Those are tenents of our profession and they apply to a New York Times reporter or a freelance writer like me—a middle aged woman who changed careers in her 40s, who's trying to build a reputation.

As random as identity theft, a keystroke in one direction or another can impact someone's reputation, or worse, their career.

This week I was the victim of someone whom I believed used me to try and revive her career by writing a bunch of lies about me. The worst part is that this wasn't on some Facebook thread. The salacious article was published on a well-known cannabis website.

I belong to several online writing groups for women, non-binary and non-gender conforming. Our goals are simple: help each other succeed in an industry dominated by men. This can be in the form of offering advice when asked, giving the name of an editor at a publication, making suggestions to improve a pitch to an editor at a publication, being a cheerleader when we're plagued with imposter syndrome, and on occasion, commiserating when things in one's personal life are up in the air or even crumbling.

In one of these groups I saw a woman's post looking for Marijuana Refugees. I didn't really fit the description because while I do take advantage of living where it's legal to consume cannabis, we didn't move here for that purpose. But I answered it anyway.

journalistic integrity

Pam* said she'd love to interview me, so I gave her my email address. She sent me three questions. I answered them and emailed her back.

Q: What was your turning point or "aha" moment specifically?

A: I’d say that aha moment was my doctor here in Puerto Rico. I fractured my back when I was 18 and was immediately put on Vicodin. Although I only took it in small doses (half a pill every two to three weeks when pain wasn't manageable), my doctor was incredibly concerned. She told me to get my head out of my ass, get off the Vicodin and because Puerto Rico was about to legalize cannabis for medicinal use, to get my card and use cannabis for pain.

Initially I blew her off because I grew up in a home that preached "Just Say No," and that pot was a gateway to more harmful drugs. Because of my new-found knowledge, I went down the rabbit hole of and I came across so much conflicting information about pot. I continued digging deeper and realized the government has been lying to us about cannabis for as far back as I can recall (Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs is as far back as I went at the time). It then led me on a road to researching its benefits. This was in April 2015. States were legalizing it and it was also legalized in Puerto Rico in 2015, so my epiphany couldn’t have happened at a better time.

Q: Do you favor certain kinds of weed or consumption or have any thoughts on restriction of weed consumption?

A: I use cannabis for chronic pain, anxiety, migraines, asthma and insomnia. For pain I love AC/DC and Harlox—both are high in CBD and low in THC. Although I wasn’t using it for anxiety initially, a beautiful “consequence” of using strains high in CBD is that it reduces my panic attacks from several a day to just a few a month. For migraines I use only one: Mango Haze. For insomnia I like Moneymaker, Hindu Kush. I have only one thought on restriction: why? Seriously. It’s the one remedy that should be left up to the consumer to self-regulate. Nobody—not even my doctor—knows my body better than I do.

Q: Do you favor social equity programs for marijuana?

A: Yes, the War on Drugs and its racist and jacked-up policies have decimated communities of color. At a minimum, all states and the US government need to exonerate every person in jail on cannabis charges and issue licenses to those who have been locked up for being part of the legacy market. And while we're at it, reinvest in communities of color that have been forgotten.

We talked on the phone once and I answered a few more questions about my cannabis consumption and I gave her a few articles from my portfolio. One talks about the way I was raised (in a family with a mother and two brothers who were/are alcoholics. One of them briefly used cocaine.

When I was 13 or 14, my middle brother took cocaine laced with PCP (Angel Dust) and overdosed. At the time he was living with his girlfriend (now his wife) and her parents. During the overdose, he had what his girlfriend described as some kind of a seizure and then he stopped breathing. She and her parents rushed him to the hospital. He stayed there for two days.

A CT scan and a spinal tap later, my brother was released from the hospital and given a clean bill of health.

My parents used his overdose to drive home the point about the dangers of cannabis being a gateway drug.

Fast forward to 2015, and I'm writing for an addiction center. In doing research for these articles, I came to understand how marijuana and drugs like heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines, etc. are very different and why it's a mistake to lump them in together.

This is why I made a complete 180. My attitude about cannabis changed after I had my eyes opened. In the second article, I talked about the aha moment when I realized an entire generation was duped—thanks to former President Richard Nixon—into believing marijuana was addictive and as bad as heroin and cocaine. Thanks to this aha moment, I was able to stop using Vicodin, which I had for years, to treat my chronic back pain.

I've never made any secret about my use of Vicodin. Hardly misuse or abuse though. A 30-day supply of the controlled substance used to last me 6-8 months.

I'd forgotten all about the article until two nights ago when I received an email from Pam saying the article was published on a well-known cannabis site. Yay! I thought to myself. That was until I read it.

The title seemed really awkward. Nobody outside of friends and family knows who I am, so I saw no need to use my name in the title.Journalistic Integrity

There were several incorrect statements, such as when my husband and I moved to Puerto Rico, but they weren't a big deal. However, a few things popped out at me that were out and out lies.

Ratliff described her parents were high-functioning alcoholics who preferred to look the other way when their son, John*, began to smoke marijuana. Ratliff's brother's teenage rebellion and foray into drugs became a years-long debilitating spiral into heroin and other dangerous drugs.

I have never described my father as an alcoholic—not in conversations with people or in my writing. I'm not sure where Pam got this. But worse, I have no idea where Pam got the impression my brother used heroin. I have never hidden the fact that his overdose on cocaine shaped how I view drugs. I think even he would say it's a stretch to go from snorting cocaine to shooting up dope.

By the time he was 18, John had been in jail for heroin and other hard-drug use, leaving young Sarah to look after herself and her other brother Marcos* while her parents spiraled into depression and alcoholism.

So my brother went from having a fictitious years-long heroin addiction to spending time in jail for using heroin and other hard drugs? This one really troubled me. My brother was never in jail for any reason. (And I can prove it. Can Pam?)

Apart from that, the only time I make reference to heroin in any article I've written or in conversation is when I talk about Marijuana being a Schedule 1 drug, "on par with heroin."

For decades, Ratliff blamed marijuana for John's descent into addiction. She blamed him for fracturing the family beyond repair.

I did? That's news to me.

Lapsing into Dependence

However, she had been downing prescribed drugs on a near-daily basis to alleviate pain from a serious fall that fractured her spine when she was 18 and living alone in New York City. After rounds of MRIs, ultrasounds, acupuncture, and yoga, the pain in her back continued to keep her from living a full life. She was on a continuous round of prescribed drugs, including tramadol, Neurontin, and Vicodin.

I did fall in the bathtub and I did fracture my back (lower back). I was also prescribed Vicodin. I didn't start taking Tramadol until seven years after my husband and I moved to Puerto Rico in 2008. I took Tramadol—as prescribed—for about four months. I stopped because it is easy to build up a tolerance to it and feel the need to take more. I stopped taking them after I read an article about their potential for misuse and addiction.

I took Neurontin, also known as Gabapentin, for neuropathy. In 2017, after Hurricane Maria, I was diagnosed with cubital tunnel syndrome. My left ulnar became dislodged and it was bouncing around, causing atrophy in the hand and my left pinky and ring fingers to curl. I had surgery in December 2017. I wrote about my experience with Gabapentin in an article for The Fix.

But the pain persisted. In 2009, she was diagnosed with degenerative disc disease and sacroiliitis, an inflammation of the sacroiliac joints. She continued to pop pills to get through the day. The pills only masked the pain.

Between the section header Lapsing Into Dependence and Pam saying "she continued to pop pills to get through day" makes me sound like a Vicodin addict. The truth is a 30-day supply of Vicodin usually lasted me between six and eight months.

I emailed Pam to ask her why she wrote the article she did. She didn't respond. I called her at home. She was slurring her words and I couldn't understand her explanation. At no time did she apologize or explain why she wrote such lies about my family and me. She said she would talk with the editor.

Three hours went by and the article was still up. I remembered Pam had given me the editor's email address, so I could pitch the publication for an article. I contacted them and told them the article was full of lies. It took several emails, including one promising the next would be from my attorney. Within a day the article came down. I received emails from both the editor and the chief of staff, both of whom apologized, and said they would investigate.

Where Has Journalistic Integrity Gone?