The United States has become a major cannabis market because some states legalized the plant for medical and recreational use. So far, over 30 states have legalized medical marijuana, 11 of these have also allowed the adult-use of the plant for recreational purposes. Massachusetts is one of the states that regulates and taxes legal recreational marijuana.

While the state has its own cannabis laws tackling medical and recreational uses, one major fact about legalization is that the plant remains illegal on the federal level. This is because of the Controlled Substances Act, which placed the plant in the list of Schedule I drugs alongside LSD and heroin.

Federal policies will play a big role in legalizing marijuana nationwide. This can be done through critical public health research and by understanding the relationship between state and federal legislation when it comes to cannabis. However, it is important to make sure that studies extract and analyze good data.

Better Survey Questions Improve Cannabis Research


A report by the University of Massachusetts Amherst researchers revealed that there is a need to improve data gathering when it comes to cannabis use and impact. According to researchers by Kimberly Geissler and Jennifer Whitehill, both assistant professors of health policy and management at the university, “A challenge for public health monitoring and research is significant variation in data availability.” Information should be associated with behaviors pertinent to cannabis use and perception within states and across various states over time. Available info should also include pre- and post-legalization.

The Need for Better Data

The research, published on JAMA Network, found that the US national data does not consistently encompass aspects of usage. This means that across-state and over-time info are not available. The researchers focused on 7 state and national surveys used for gathering. The UMass researchers also noted that even Massachusetts, which had legalized medical marijuana in 2012 and adult-use cannabis in 2016, uses inadequate surveys.

Geissler and Whitehill concluded that the available tools do not evaluate 8 key aspects of cannabis use and perception. This means that no survey placed particular attention to all 8 indicators namely:

  • lifetime cannabis use
  • age of initiation
  • frequency
  • location
  • method
  • source of cannabis
  • perceptions
  • reasons (particularly medical or non-medical).

Researchers intending to monitor the public health effect of state and national policies face limitations when it comes to the type of info needed. Conducting such studies can make it difficult for would-be researchers because of “a lack of available data in existing population surveys.”

Without these valuable data, institutions and individual researchers would not be able to keep up with the fast-paced changes that happen when it comes to legalization and policymaking. This can also hinder organizations and individuals from promptly identifying prospective developments in key indicators. Ultimately, the existence of better statewide info can result in a better understanding of the effect of legalization.

Possible Areas of Improvement for Surveys

The discussion above highlights the need for improved surveys in order to gather better data. Refining survey questions can help in achieving this. The following changes can aid in developing questions that gather the data needed for a more comprehensive statewide and nationwide database for future studies:

  • Incorporate the 8 Indicators

One of the most important issues found by Geissler and Whitehill is that statewide and nationwide surveys, even from institutions such as the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System and Youth Behavioral Surveillance System, fail to integrate the 8 key indicators. These indicators are used to monitor the habits of users, which can be valuable in understanding and anticipating the use behaviors and perceptions of participants.

By incorporating these indicators, organizations and individuals can gather data about the amount used by consumers from various age ranges. This can also provide an insight into the types of products they prefer and how often they consume such products. Other info that can be gathered by using the 8 indicators includes location, source, reasons, and perceptions.

  • Data from Before and After Legalization

Another essential note from the UMass researchers says that pre- and post-legalization data should be available. Such types of info can help evaluate changes when it comes to usage, as well as possible reasons changes occurred. These are the types of data that can aid in understanding the impact of legalization.

With questions pertaining to pre- and post-legalization, assessors can find out what types of products consumers preferred to use before and after legalization. It can also shed light on where they obtain products, how often they partake, location of use, and their perception of cannabis during such times.

  • Minimize Yes or No Questions

Questions that can be answered by yes or no provide vague and limited information. However, the UMass report noted that those that “go beyond yes-or-no” can “provide better data for public health strategies to prevent harmful consequences.” According to Whitehill, the paper lets other researchers know “what data is actually out there.” Again, such data can be extracted using surveys that incorporate the 8 indicators while getting info on pre- and post-legalization usage.

What to Expect from Such Changes

As mentioned, making such changes in survey questions can aid in extracting better data for future researches. Building a database using more comprehensive and detailed info can help in doing more in-depth and accurate analysis. Moreover, it can help in directing attention to matters that could have been overlooked or overshadowed because of inadequate surveys and questions. Ultimately, it lets organizations and individual researchers discover “key details that could inform policy and efforts to prevent harm.”

Such changes to surveys are also deemed important for states that are yet to legalize adult-use recreational marijuana, especially as they still have the chance to gather info before legalization.

Cannabis Research

The Bottom Line

The research by Geissler and Whitehall can be used by institutions and individual researchers to improve their data gathering methods by making changes to existing surveys. With these possible changes, more accurate and in-depth findings can come up, which can be used in policymaking and legislation.

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