If A Scientific Finding Was Retracted, They Know it Must Be True

Christopher Wanjeck lists the five biggest retractions of science in 2011. Some were honest errors, others were likely fraud. Here are the inaccurate findings that were later retracted:

(a) Closing medical marijuana dispensaries increases crime
(b) Butterflies once accidentally mated with worms, thereby creating caterpillars
(c) Appendicitis should be treated with antibiotics rather than surgery
(d) Litter breeds crime and discrimination
(e) Chronic fatigue syndrome is caused by a virus

The educative impact of these retractions will unfortunately be limited by two factors. First, although the mainstream media generally covers retractions, influential bloggers often do not. I would not single out any particular blogger for criticism when this is such a prevalent problem, but if you search on many websites that lavished attention on the initial appearance of the since-retracted findings you will often not find a retraction published later (I hope those bloggers just learning of these retractions are addressing them now on their sites if appropriate. There is no shame in having been taken in by the initial reports — lots of people were — but to not acknowledge that inaccurate content has gone out under your name seems a breach of bloggeristic ethics).

The other force limiting the influence of these retractions is that false finding (a) and to some extent (c) and (e) have become politicized. I searched on a few sites outside the MSM for retractions of the marijuana dispensaries finding and the first two I found illustrate the problem (I was sufficiently discouraged at that point to stop searching, but please, someone — anyone — post a list of advocacy groups/commentators who forthrightly acknowledged that the initial finding was retracted due to a serious scientific error…I am always ready to have my faith in human nature restored).

Tim Cavanaugh of Reason Magazine covered the retraction mainly by attacking the people who were right to be skeptical of the initial marijuana dispensaries report while he was touting its results. Kris Hermes of Americans for Safe Access claimed that ASA already had already done studies showing that the finding was correct (presumably misplaced until this moment) and went on to speculate that the retraction of the study was politically motivated. Similar reactions were the norm in many quarters after 2010’s biggest scientific retraction: The fraudulent linking of MMR vaccines to autism by Dr. Andrew Wakefield.

In those circles where putative findings are embraced not for truth value but for emotional impact and political utility, a retraction is the ultimate confirmation that a study’s results are true. After all “they” (there is always a “they”) couldn’t deal with the truth, so they had it suppressed. The surgeons’ guild had the guy who promoted antibiotics discredited, the pharmaceutical industry smeared the people who proved that CFS is caused by a virus, and the vicious drug warriors threatened the marijuana researchers into withdrawing their dispensaries and crime study results.

In psychologist Leon Festinger’s famous Doomsday Cult participant observation study, the research team wondered what would happen to the cult members’ faith when the world did not in fact end on the predicted day. After initial moments of shock, the cult members concluded it was their faith itself that had spared the Earth from destruction, which only intensified their commitment to the cult.

And so, alas, it goes.

Marijuana Prices in California

Following our debates here about the price of marijuana, I thought I would flag for people’s interest this piece by Michael Montgomery.

His reporting indicates that after dropping lower than $1,000 pound ($62.50/ounce), Northern California prices for the latest harvest have now rebounded to $2,000-$2,500 a pound ($125-$156/ounce).

I suspect normal market forces, bad weather and mold drove most of the change. The article suggests that law enforcement was influential as well by leading some growers to cut back on their crop. Possible, but it also led some dispensaries to close, which would have the opposite effect on prices (i.e., fewer dispensaries chasing grown crop would lower prices).

Upmarket Versus Downmarket Marijuana Prices: A Response to Andrew Sullivan et al.

I recently presented a series of DIY calculations for determining the size of the U.S. marijuana market. This post got a lot of play around the web, most notably from Andrew Sullivan, who again did me the kindness of adding his millions of regular readers to my regular readers (both of them). A number of commenters at his site, RBC and other web outlets (e.g., Washington Monthly) jumped on my estimate that the average price of marijuana was $120-$144/ounce (i.e., $120 with an upward sensitivity of 20%). Across the comments I read of those people who reported their marijuana purchasing experiences, the average price quoted was $425/ounce.

How does one account for the price estimate generated in this fashion being so much higher than, for example, reports from Oregon that indoor-grown marijuana prices are as low as $2000/pound ($125 per ounce) and prices for outdoor grown weed are as low as $700/pound ($44 per ounce)? Or the reports of law enforcement officials (who are often accused of overstating the cash value of drug seizures) from South Texas showing that marijuana prices have plummeted to $540/kilogram ($15/ounce)? Are some people fibbing or simply wildly off-base? In my view, no. All have won and all must have prizes because of the bifurcated nature of the markets for many drugs, including marijuana.

In the early 1980s, I was working with drug addicted people on the mean streets of Detroit, which were very mean indeed in those days. The mainstream media at the time and my middle class friends saw cocaine as a glamorous drug consumed by bankers and movie stars at prices upwards of $100/dose. My daily experience however was that cocaine was becoming an unglamorous drug (crack) purchased at $5/dose or less by streetwalkers, homeless people, gangbangers and people living in housing projects. Had the Internet of today existed then and I had posted that the average price of a dose of cocaine in the U.S. was very low, I would no doubt have been inundated with people saying (to paraphrase a commenter on my marijuana market post) “if Humphreys knew a place where cocaine sold for $5/dose, the world would beat a path to his door”.

But what I was seeing in Detroit was real, namely the emergence of a “downmarket” in cocaine. The “upmarket” was also real and was mainly composed of casual users who bought high-quality product. They paid high prices and often purchased their drug with bundled services (e.g., home delivery). The “downmarket” was mainly composed of heavy users who bought low-quality product at cheap prices. The upmarket was mostly Caucasian in racial makeup, with good social capital (e.g. college education, employment). The downmarket was mainly composed of lower-income people of color. The upmarket was not just rich people; it included many middle class and some working class people. But the downmarket was overwhelmingly composed of people living in poverty (with a few cross-overs now and then).

All of what I have said about the cocaine market in the 1980s could be said about the bifurcated market in marijuana today. And that makes assessment of average marijuana prices a challenging task.

At first blush, determining the true average price of a drug across a bifurcated market might seem as simple as summing the upmarket and downmarket price and dividing by two. But this is not correct because the frequency of use and drug purchasing are much higher in the downmarket, meaning that the cheap price must be weighted much more heavily than the high-end price when determining the average national price. For marijuana, a good survey for determining average national price would require a sample in which about 80% of the marijuana purchasers live in or near poverty, and the other 20% of purchasers were financially better off.

This of course is not the sort of sample breakdown you will get on the Internet. Internet users clearly “skew upmarket“: They are more educated, have higher incomes, are more likely to be employed and are more likely to be Caucasian than is the U.S. population as whole. Although I don’t have any data on the characteristics of Internet users who read Andrew Sullivan and debate public policy with Stanford University professors, I feel safe in assuming that if anything they are even higher in education and income than is the average Internet user. Finally, to the extent that online contributions to marijuana price estimates come from websites and groups advocating marijuana legalization, this is yet another layer of upmarket bias as those sentiments are strongest among white, highly-educated and affluent people. All of the above factors combined would led us to expect that the comments about my original post would very much reflect an upmarket perspective, as indeed they do.

By and large, the various comments quote prices for an upmarket product, namely sensimilla, which is only about a fifth of the marijuana market (the rest is much cheaper commercial grade product, most of which comes from Mexico). The comments often reflect the upmarket phenomenon of service bundling, e.g., “At my dispensary in San Francisco….”. If you live in a public housing project in Dallas and the local drug dealer comes to his door when you knock and hands you a half pound of marijuana in a garbage bag for $300, the price truly reflects the price of the drug. But at a dispensary, with a physical location that you enter, staff on hand and an elaborate system to reduce your perceived risk of arrest (i.e., the doctor’s recommendation), you are buying marijuana bundled with other services and the “price of weed” you pay is in fact only partly the weed.

Let me illustrate the upmarket perspective concretely using two of the many posted comments:

From one of Andrew Sullivan’s readers: I have never encountered decent quality marijuana for less than $200/ounce in the western US.

From a Washington Monthly reader: I’ve been a user since ’68 and nearly everyone I know is a user. Not abusers but users. From my experience, the avg. couple uses daily, usually after work in the evening aka a glass of wine etc. Most couples will average 1-2 oz/month, especially upper income users of which there are many.

The world these two comments describe — the upmarket — is real, but is a small part of the total marijuana market. Sullivan’s reader insists on “decent quality” which is not generally a consideration for marijuana smokers in the downmarket. And the pot smokers described by the Washington Monthly commenter are not the people who do most of the purchasing; lower income people who smoke all day almost every day complete far more transactions and thus influence average prices far more. These two comments and others like them reflect a reality as surely as did Pauline Kael’s alleged remark that she didn’t know anyone who voted for President Nixon in 1972. But Nixon won a landslide for the same reason that the average price of pot in the U.S. is far cheaper than $425/ounce: The experience of a selected part of the population can be extremely different from the experience of the whole.

DIY Assessment of Marijuana Market Numbers

Morgan Fox at Cato Institute sees great profit potential from legalizing marijuana because “experts” tell him that the market in this commodity may be worth as much as $120 Billion a year, which is more than wheat and corn combined. An impressive claim indeed, but is it true?

You are going to hear many numbers like this in the coming year. In my continuing quest to make our democracy work better, I am going to lay out some DIY math that will help you discern in a few easy steps which estimates are believable and which are not. Given the ideological nature of marijuana legalization debates, within 5 minutes of my posting this, someone somewhere on the Internet will write “I don’t care about evidence, I believe X”. If that’s you, skip down to the comments section now and start bloviating, what follows is data, nuance, the encouragement of independent thinking and a lot of other stuff you will find upsetting.

But for the blessed and admirable rest of you….

Step 1: Convert the estimate of the financial value of the U.S. marijuana market into something more understandable, for example number of ounces or joints.

Start with your market number. For the sake of argument, in this case let’s take Fox’s upper estimate of $120 Billion/year. That’s too big a number for any of us to relate to or understand, so Step 1 is to convert it into ounces or joints of marijuana.

The price of an ounce varies based on where you are, whether you buy in bulk, and what grade you purchase. But $120/ounce isn’t a bad estimate for a national average in any case, and here it makes the math easy so let’s use it. If marijuana costs $120/ounce, Americans would have to purchase 1 billion ounces a year to reach the $120 Billion dollar estimate. Already you will be suspicious of Fox’s market number because this works out to over 3 ounces per American (1 billion ounces divided by slightly over 300 million people), assuming that everyone uses marijuana, including newborns, people in comas and emphysema patients.

For many people knowing ounces gives them a sense of how much pot we are talking about. For others, an estimate of joints is more helpful. Drug policy wonks estimate the size of a joint at .454 grams because that is not a bad estimate and it makes the math easy (1 pound = 1000 joints). So using this “standard joint” metric, an ounce of marijuana yields 1000/16 = 62.5 joints. Data from dispensaries and users indicate that most experienced users actually roll slightly bigger joints than “standard size”. To acknowledge that and again make the math easy, bump the joints/ounce ratio up to 50 and you get in the example we are working with 3 ounces X 50 joints = 150 joints per American (again, counting every man Jack and girl Jill one of the them) per year if the $120 Billion figure is correct.

Step 2: Divide your ounce and joint estimates by the number of people who are current pot smokers.

We can’t stop at Step 1 because not all Americans smoke pot, indeed the vast majority don’t and never have. The federal government National Survey of Drug Use and Health gives somewhat suspect estimates of the use of heroin, methamphetamine and the like, but it’s marijuana numbers are pretty good so take your estimate of the number of current pot smokers from there. The survey’s current reported number of Americans who have smoked pot in the last month is 17.4 million. You can add a bit to that depending on how much you think people lie. For the sake of our example let’s make the math simple again and assume that another 7.6 million Americans fibbed about not using marijuana in the past month, giving a total of 25 million current users.

When you divide 25 million marijuana users into one billion ounces, you get 40 ounces per user per year. If you were not doubtful of the $120 Billion figure yet, the implication that the average U.S. pot smoker is sucking down two and a half pounds of marijuana a year should set off alarm bells for you. Again using our simple math above, this works out to 40 ounces X 50 joints/ounce = 2000 joints per user per year.

Step 3: Divide your estimate of amount of marijuana use per user by days of use.

Current pot smokers report that they use marijuana an average of 60 days a year. Using our current example, 40 ounces/60 days of use means that the average user would have to go through 2/3 of an ounce of marijuana on each day that they used marijuana. That’s .67 X 50 or 33.5 joints per day of use. And there’s a terrific bridge for sale in Brooklyn too.

Step 4 (Optional): Do some sensitivity analyses.

I have made the math above transparent so that you can fiddle with the numbers as you see fit and see what happens. You could for example alter joint size or number of users up or down see how that affects the validity of whatever market estimate you are looking at. There is no amount of tweaking of assumptions that will make the “experts” whom Morgan Fox says he believes sound credible, but such sensitivity analyses may help you determine whether other estimates you hear are believable to you.

Admirable Obama Administration statement on marijuana legalization

There’s a big gap between what the Administration said and what it should have said.

When the Obama Administration decided to invite petitions from the public, it no doubt anticipated that there would be one or more about legalizing cannabis, a proposal that now has roughly 50% public support. Of course, the Administration isn’t ready to go there, but it had a perfectly sensible response:
Continue reading “Admirable Obama Administration statement on marijuana legalization”

[Wordless shriek of rage and frustration]

Most of the news in the new household survey on drug abuse is good: cocaine and meth use are down, meth initiations are way down. There’s an uptick in cannabis use, especially among young adults. So why is the official press release headlined “National Survey Shows a Rise in Illicit Drug Use”?

Over the past four years, the number of people self-reporting as methamphetamine users on the big household survey is down by half, and meth initiation rates – a leading indicator, and therefore the one to watch – by 60%. The number of people self-reporting cocaine use is down by a third. Middle-school rates of drinking and smoking are also down, though less dramatically. Initiation to non-medical pain relievers remains high, but off its peak in the early 2000s, reached after a decade that saw initiation rise tenfold.

Oh, yes, and cannnabis use is up some (almost 20% from the 2007 trough, from ), especially among young adults (18-25). Cannabis use among those under 18 is flat. Mean age at first use is up from 17 to 18.4: that’s the direction you want to see it going.

So the on-one-foot summary of the results is “Nothing exciting, but basically good news.”

But if you were really, really, really stupid – or had a job that required you to pretend to be that way – you might just treat all use of illicit drugs as alike and simply count the number of users. In that case, the modest rise in cannabis use would swamp all the other results, because cannabis is by far the mostly widely used illicit drug, and a report mostly full of pretty good news would come out as “National Survey Shows a Rise in Illicit Drug Use,” complete with silly viewing-with-alarm quotes from officials.

(No, dammit, we are not “at a crossroads”! Next year is mostly going to look like this year.)

Even after 30 years in the business, it’s hard to get used to how plain damned dumb the official (and journalistic) discourse on this topic is. The household survey (aptly named NS-DUH, where DUH is pronouned “duhhhhhhhhh”) doesn’t get at what’s really interesting: the number of problem users, and especially criminally-active problem users. But it does contain some useful information. Too bad the people running the show mostly ignore that information and concentrate on fluff.

Caulkins on (quasi) medical marijuana

How come the number of “medical” marijuana users in some states is so large compared to the total number of self-reported marijuana users? Is there an epidemic of chronic pain among otherwise healthy thirty-year-old men who have been smoking pot for years?

Jon Caulkins of Carnegie Mellon is the lead author on a book on marijuana legalization scheduled for publication next spring. The rest of the team consists of Angela Hawken of Pepperdine and me (who worked with Jon on Drugs and Drug Policy, part of the same series from Oxford University Press) plus Beau Kilmer, who heads the RAND effort studying the possible effects of legalization.

Jon and I don’t come from the same place culturally or politically, and he’s extraordinarily smart (not to mention conscientious and kind), a combination that makes working with him – as I’ve been doing off and on for twenty years – both a challenge and a pleasure. Angela and Beau bring still different personalities, views, and skills to the enterprise – along with razor-sharp minds –  but so far it’s running very smoothly.  The concluding chapter of the new book will consist of a brief statement by each author laying out a preferred option; I can’t predict any of them in detail (even my own thinking keeps shifting) but I expect the four statements to embody lots of disagreement.

Jon and I agree more about facts than we do about values or policies. For example, he’s clearly right to say that the profile of “medical” marijuana users looks like a profile of recreational drug users, not a profile of patients, and that their sheer numbers in some states suggest that most of the recreational market is now accessing its supplies through quasi-medical channels. And that doesn’t even count the people whose recreational needs are supplied by friends with medical cards. Whether he’s also right to say that the Justice Department would do well to crack down on the scam is less obvious, at least to me.

Two Intriguing Developments in Marijuana Legalization

This story about the Oakland City Council’s decision not to go forward with a plan to let private companies start enormous “medical” pot farms has two intriguing subplots.

First, the Alameda County Attorney advised the members of the council that it was not clear whether they would be immune from federal prosecution if they approved the plan. This issue hasn’t come up yet because Prop 19 lost, but assuming some state goes pro-pot, it’s an inevitability. If a mayor or city council creates a system regulating cannabis production that is legal under state law and tries to tax it, will federal agents arrest them under federal drug trafficking statutes? I don’t think it’s a question of whether this would be legal but whether a federal prosecutor would be willing to take the political heat this would generate.

Second, small pot growers apparently lobbied the council not to pass the plan for mega-farms. Most analyses of the medical marijuana movement assume that the pot growers would become the vanguard for full legalization. But if you are a small grower, a big corporate producer of medical marijuana will easily be able to under-sell you and thereby reduce your profit. And if there is full legalization, small growers will be in the same position as small family farms trying to stay afloat in a market dominated by massive corporate farms. Some people were shocked that a number of small growers (and dispensary operators) opposed Prop 19, but that may become the normative stance over time once the implications of a corporate presence are more widely understood.