Bad Research and Worse Interpretations: How Misleading Headlines Threaten the Future of Cannabis Legalization

Author: Sara Zimmer, M.S.

Since Colorado legalized cannabis for adult use in 2012, there has always been an alarming lack of data and information on the impacts of cannabis and cannabis legalization on health and societal outcomes. Even the general public has increased their interest for such information, as evidenced by a growth of 72% in online searches related to cannabis research in the last 10 years alone. Now, researchers across higher education, think-tanks, corporations, and advocacy groups alike are increasingly producing poorly designed, misleading, and counterproductive interpretations of data in an effort to fill the growing desire for information. These efforts not only incite further disagreement between legalization advocates and those referred to as the “new prohibitionists”, but serve as barriers for cannabis legalization’s potential societal benefits.

Put simply, bad research can threaten effort to optimize cannabis legalization and public health. Federal cannabis legalization in the U.S. is now inevitable, making discussions of yay vs. nay rather pointless and leaving in its tracks the need for discourse and concerted efforts that optimize the potential positive impacts of cannabis legalization. The most common concern, and not without some merit, is the potential negative public health ramifications of cannabis legalization. Although most scientific research on this topic has shown mixed or neutral findings in general, specific politicians and others in the general public cling to any report available to support attempts to countering any bills on cannabis legalization, regardless of their reliance on data-based evidence and solid public policy.

For example, a recent, widely distributed Gallup report boldly describes how young adult cannabis use is significantly more prevalent than tobacco cigarette use, despite cannabis and tobacco use questions being presented in two inequivalent scales of measure; use of cigarettes in the past week vs. use of cannabis without any associated time frame. In other words, researchers assessed frequency of substance use with differing measures, yet results between substances were compared as though they were assessed on equivalent scales. Assuming past month cannabis use was the most commonly interpreted time frame among poll participants, then a greater proportion of young adults would actually use tobacco cigarettes than cannabis, which is the opposite of the finding claimed by the authors. This article was then reported on Marijuana Moment, the cannabis online publication,  to the title of, “Young Americans Are Twice as Likely to Smoke Marijuana Than Cigarettes, New Gallup Data Shows.” Based on fairly consistent evidence that young adult cannabis use tends to increase risks for negative cognitive and developmental outcomes, those particularly concerned about the public health implications of cannabis legalization have now been given another arrow in their quiver, albeit an inaccurate one, to use in an effort to optimize legalization. The irony is that the headline may have been aimed to show the normalization of cannabis use and perhaps presuming an association between the decline in cigarettes and the increase in cannabis, giving pro-legalization activists something new to add to the public discourse. The misinterpretations coming from both sides of a useless debate are causing both parties to lose. It is unproductive at best and infuriating at worst for the millions of Americans who want cannabis legalization to be more than just yes/no on a ballot. 

Such misleading research efforts are not uncommon in higher education either. When articles are published in scientific journals, paywalls and simple effort costs lead policy officials and the general public to often only read the final two or three sentences of the abstract, which highlights the main findings and implications of a study. For example, one study published a few days after Thanksgiving this year examined the prevalence of co-use of alcohol and cannabis across different age groups in the U.S. from 2008-2019. The authors reported in their “Conclusion” section that, “Implementation of recreational cannabis policies resulted in increased simultaneous use of cannabis and alcohol,” which contrasts with their reported results which suggested, “From 2008 to 2019, the overall prevalence of simultaneous cannabis/alcohol use declined among those aged 12–20 but increased in adults aged 21+.” In other words, adult use cannabis laws (recreational) were actually associated with decreases in co-occurring alcohol and cannabis use in the most vulnerable population (12–20-year-olds) and the second most vulnerable population (51 years old+) assessed in the study, what many might call a public health win as a whole. Like the first example, such colored interpretations not only mischaracterize the potential impacts of cannabis legalization but may obscure risks for those who may or do consume cannabis and other substances.

If a tree falls in the forest, it happens regardless of whether it was heard. Federal legalization of cannabis is inevitable whether folks wish to see it or not. The quality of research conducted on the impacts of cannabis legalization on health and societal outcomes has the power to enhance, or destroy, the opportunity to implement cannabis policies that improve net outcomes for individuals and society alike.