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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday 22nd February 2013

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that I’m a fan of ‘The West Wing’ because I written about the way some of its themes read across to the real world. If you are familiar with the series, you’ll know that one of those regular themes is about polling and surveys. There are a number of discussions about the importance of wording when seeking the views of the public.

Talking about the results of a question without discussing the nuances of how the question was phrased can lead to an inaccurate portrayal of a situation. And there is also the selection of the polling results that most suit your convinced position.

What can get lost, however, in this detailed examination of how questions were asked and what results have been selected and rejected is the glaringly obvious. There have been some things written recently concerning the availability of Cannabis sativa, marijuana, to teenagers in the USA.

Cannabis sativa, marijuana

Information about substance use by young people in the USA comes, largely, from two surveys. ‘Monitoring the Future(MTF)’1 is conducted by the University of Michigan and is paid for by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a part of the National Institutes of Health. ‘The National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse(NSAASA)’2 is run by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASAColumbia) though it uses a professional polling firm to collect the data.

I haven’t done a detailed comparison between the two but one area where they did differ for a number of years was on the question of how easy it is for school students to obtain Cannabis sativa, marijuana.

Cannabis sativa, marijuana

The ‘MTF’ report3 for 2003, to take one example at random, found that 87% of the students in the final year at high school said that marijuana was “fairly easy” or “very easy” to get. The comparable figure for alcohol was 95% and the ‘MTF’ reports have consistently shown alcohol to be a little easier to get than cannabis. For the latest report4, covering 2012, those figures are 82% for cannabis and 91% for alcohol.

With the CASAColumbia reports something strange appears to happen. The 17th report, published in August 20125 says that 24% of teens think beer is the easiest substance to get with 19% putting marijuana in that category.

Before going any further, it is important to point out the difference in the questions between the two surveys. MTF wants to know if substances are easy to get whereas the NSAASA is asking for one substance perceived to be the easiest.

In the latest report, CASAColumbia adds a note to the question about availability. Go to page B-14 question 56 on the survey. The question asks ‘Which is easiest for someone your age to get:’ The footnote says ‘The question was changed from, “Which is easiest for someone your age to buy” to “Which is easiest for someone your age to get” in 2010.’

It turns out my random selection of 2003 was fortuitous because, in that year, the sample was split with some asked what was easiest to ‘buy’ and the rest asked what was easiest to ‘obtain’. (Download the document from the list of reports6 and go to Q36 on page 44.) Neither earlier nor later reports have that split.

Cannabis sativa, marijuana

That split in 2003 shows that while marijuana is perceived as easiest to buy by 34% of the sample, against alcohol’s 18%, when the question is ‘obtain’ rather than ‘buy’ the figure are marijuana 19%, beer 27%.

The very clear difference between ‘buy’ and ‘obtain’ (now ‘get’ – maybe they’ve found 'obtain' is too difficult a concept for some) comes about because alcohol is legal and is, therefore, to be found in many homes plus many parents believe that introducing alcohol in a family setting is the way to foster a mature attitude towards it.

So, we should have known, since 2003, that there is a difference between ‘buy’ and ‘get’ but that didn’t stop it becoming a news item when a reforming politician in Rhode Island claimed that marijuana was easier to get than alcohol. A feature report in the Providence Journal7 looked at the claim and declared it to be false.

Cannabis sativa, marijuana

Nothing has changed since 1973.

Let’s be clear. It is as wrong for reformers to pick out of date information and change one word that changes the context as it is for drug warriors to do the same as in this example from Kathy Gyngell. But it is the reaction to the piece that interested me and the way the central issue was ducked. Kevin Sabet, who has the greatest difficulty keeping his sheep’s clothing in place, leapt on the item for a sort of ‘Aha! Reformers lie’ Tweet.

But, he didn’t deal with the central issue and I know it is an old one but it still remains at the heart of the debate. The clearly stated intention of the UN drugs control regime is to create a ‘drug free world’. It really doesn’t matter if you can reverse the order between cannabis and alcohol by changing ‘buy’ to ‘get’. If prohibition worked, marijuana would simply not be available at all.

If, according to ‘MTF’, 9 out of 10 teenagers who think alcohol is ‘“fairly easy” or “very easy” to get’ think the same about marijuana, then prohibition has completely failed.


1.    Monitoring the Future  University of Michigan
2.    The National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.
3.    Monitoring the Future 2003  University of Michigan
4.    Monitoring the Future 2012  University of Michigan
5.    The National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse XVII: Teens CASAColumbia August 2012  
6.    The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University List of Reports
7.    Rhode Island State Rep. Edith Ajello says studies indicate minors find it easier to get marijuana than alcohol at Prividence Journal 6th February 2013

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