Having seen this headline essentially carbon copied all over the place recently, I raised an eyebrow. Given the constraints on my time, however, I never bothered to look into the details of the findings. After all, if I took time out of my schedule to look into every single release of survey data that could be sus (which is all of them, since the media often doesn’t know (or care) to use survey data correctly), I would not get anything done. This isn’t even considering the uniquely biased mess that traditional media entities tend to make of marijuana research (particularly that with negative results).
As it happens, however, Leafly (Bruce Barcott, Leafly’s Senior editor) has already done the legwork for us. So let’s explore some of his findings.
When does good health news magically turn into a worrisome trend? When cannabis is involved, of course.
This past week we were treated to a master class in trend creation and data twisting by NIDA Director Nora Volkow.
NIDA is the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the federal agency that retains a stranglehold on all cannabis research in the US.
On Aug. 21, Volkow’s agency issued a press release claiming that marijuana and hallucinogen use among young adults reached an all-time high last year.
The following day’s New York Times gave NIDA’s claim a courtesy shine. Times health reporter Andrew Jacobs basically rewrote the press release and the copy desk topped it with this header: “Use of Marijuana and Psychedelics Is Soaring Among Young Adults, Study Finds.”https://www.leafly.com/news/politics/is-marijuana-use-really-soaring-among-young-people
I do in fact recall coming across the NYT article. My most vivid recollection was my annoyance with the fact that it was paywalled.
Indeed, such is their choice. However, it kind of puts a damper on the whole public service aspect of reporting on a worrying trend in young people. Concerned, but not so concerned as to put aside one’s capitalistic end goals.
Reminds me of the state of vaping regulations in the past decade when it comes to keeping addictive substances out of the hands of teenagers. But that is another ball of wax altogether.
NIDA Director Nora Volkow told Jacobs she found the results “very concerning.”
“What they tell us is that the problem of substance abuse among young people has gotten worse in this country,” she said, “and that the pandemic, with all its mental stressors and turmoil, has likely contributed to the rise.”
The NIDA press release included this alarming visual:
The cannabis numbers are not unlike what I would expect given the evolving status of the drug. Slow and steady rise as more states relax the idiocy and more people become comfortable with this new option (or switch away from illicit sources). The hallucinogen spike is interesting, but given the state of the world of late, also not really. With covid vaccination becoming more commonplace and people starting to let loose more (no doubt making up for lost time), I’m unsurprised to see that some are choosing to do so with the aid of hallucination.
I also doubt the trend will hold. As things become more normal (whatever that is to mean these days), that graph is likely to flatten back to its former status.
The whole thing struck me as odd. Other studies have seen a sharp drop in marijuana use among teenagers in 2020 and 2021—most likely due to pandemic stay-at-home orders that limited the opportunities for America’s teens to obtain and use weed. (I’ll leave the hallucinogen data alone for now.)
Intrigued, I took a dive into the data behind NIDA’s claim. And found—quelle surprise—a giant turd at the bottom of the pond.
I love the honesty.
Not new, not soaring, not buying it
Last week’s NIDA claim and Times headline didn’t come from a new study, it turns out. They came from the latest Monitoring the Future report, which was published last December. Monitoring the Future is a national survey of drug use that the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research has conducted annually since 1975. NIDA and its parent agency, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) help fund the study.
Eight months ago, when that study was actually new, NIDA issued a press release heralding the survey’s finding that teen drug use, including teen marijuana use, dropped significantly in 2021. “We have never seen such dramatic decreases in drug use among teens in just a one-year period,” Nora Volkow said at the time.
The good news about teen marijuana use isn’t limited to the pandemic era. Over the past few years, as legalization has spread to 19 states, studies have failed to find a related rise in teen use. At an anti-drug conference in January, Volkow herself said she’s been surprised to see years of data that show “the prevalence rates of marijuana use among teenagers have been stable despite the legalization in many states.”
Recycling old data points to push an entirely new narrative? That is certainly a new tact. But we will get to that later.
As for the previous findings about legalization failing to cause a rise in teenage marijuana use, to that I have to say . . . duh. I’ve been saying since my days of advocating for marijuana legalization post high school in 2007 that legalization was a great way to keep the drug from minors. Because:
1.) purchasing regulations serve the same purpose when it comes to alcohol and tobacco. While it won’t stop unscrupulous (or irresponsible) vendors or adult purchasers, it works well enough.
2.) Not only do black market drug traffickers not generally care who they sell to (minor or otherwise), they also can carry a much more vast array of substances than the fairly tame cannabis or psilocybin. I recall overhearing phone calls to dealers back in the day (2006-ish) and hearing substances like cocaine or meth offered in lieu of weed since the town was dry at the time. I also recall the city’s police force publicly bragging about a big pot bust in the local media.
Brilliant. Now teens and everyone in between are calling for green and instead being offered snow or ice instead. Great work!
It has always baffled me why the legalization does not equate to more teenage drug use argument doth not compute to adults. But I suppose, it shouldn’t surprise me. If they had any exposure to drug culture at all, it was likely multiple decades previous.
So what changed between then and now? Nothing—except, perhaps, NIDA’s need to keep the nation alarmed about cannabis legalization as election season approaches.
How do you do that when the data undermines your talking point? You rearrange the data.
Here’s how they did it: The data fudge
Pay attention to NIDA’s definition of “young adults.”
When you see “young adults” in the Times headline you probably imagine people in their late teens, early twenties, right? High school and college years.
The “soaring” use of marijuana was pulled from a data set that NIDA stretched to include all survey respondents from age 19 to age 30. Which is a ridiculously wide age range to smoosh together. At 19, you’re an idiot draining kegs and skinny-dipping in Frosh Pond. (If you’re me.) At 30, you’re married with a job, a mortgage, and a baby on the way. (Me again.)
And let’s not neglect the obvious: In legal states, 19- and 20-year-olds can’t legally buy or possess marijuana. Adults age 21 to 30 are legal.
I’m glad that this was made clear since even I misinterpreted the data even after reading the 19-30 year age range in the previous chart. Probably because raising concern over rising use in young adults almost inherently makes one think of minors. As opposed to grown adults making a consensual choice in what they consume. Not unlike 30-year-old drinking alcohol.
What the data actually show
If you go into the Monitoring the Future data and separate the 18-to-20 year-olds from the 21-to-30 year-olds, you’ll find a remarkable story. (I’m including 18-year-olds because the data is there. I don’t know why NIDA chose not to use it.)
Over the past decade, as adult-use legalization has taken hold for nearly half the American population, the University of Michigan researchers found the percentage of 18-to-20 year-olds who tried marijuana at least once in the past year has remained almost unchanged: 35.4% in 2011, and 35.0% in 2021.
Meanwhile, the percentage of 21-to-30 year-olds (adults of legal age) trying marijuana increased from 28% to 43%.
Here’s what that looks like, using data from the same Monitoring the Future report:
By lumping the underage cohort with the legal-age cohort, NIDA dragged the average up and made it look like there was an alarming increase in “young adults” using marijuana.
This, folks, is why I’ve learned to ignore A Newly Released Study Concluded . . . headlines. Because choosing the desired outcome can often be as easy as playing with the data. So that, as in this case, you can transition data that is seemingly antithetical to your agenda into fitting its narrative nicely.
Considering that the data source is the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the action is very disappointing given their stated purpose as touted on their website.
Our mission is to advance science on drug use and addiction and to apply that knowledge to improve individual and public health.https://nida.nih.gov/about-nida
But I am not surprised either. As frustrating as it is to deal with, the phrase You Can’t Teach An Old Dog New Tricks really seems applicable to many people as far as this topic (really, ANY topic!) is concerned, expert or not. Certainly, this is the case for ordinary people without related education or career experience, but the problem becomes much more pertinent when one has spent likely decades in an area of research and thus likely has a huge amount of effort locked into a given conclusion.
Frankly, I don’t know why this didn’t occur to me before.
Here I was, wondering how people like Kevin Sabet could go around spreading BS on a topic that they seem woefully out of touch on. Maybe it’s because they have no interest in updating their point of view. A point of view that has been shaped by decades of reinforcement in the academic and/or government sectors.
Indeed, this is a strawman argument on my part. However, the easiest way to prove this otherwise would be for such people to actually properly interact with the areas of study in which they claim to be their focus.
After all, since a government-funded organization is tasked with the well-being and overall health of drug users, what other conclusion (aside from them being irreversibly biased) can one make about the organization’s leadership when they are caught manipulating data to fit a given agenda?
The only way to defeat this problem is to push out these old dogs and replace them with inquiry-focused thinkers and leaders. A conclusion that makes the end goal of legalization a much taller order than it used to be.
Nonetheless, the current wasteful status quo will continue to waste, maim and kill for as long as the dinosaurs are allowed to keep us entrenched in the era of Nixon.