In the midst of a raging national debate on how Americans use marijuana, a team of student researchers from the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs is collecting data that could help separate marijuana fact from fiction.
Led by Social Welfare professor Bridget Freisthler , the researchers are fanning out across Los Angeles to visit medical marijuana dispensaries, surveying patients and dispensary owners to learn how marijuana fits into their lives -- and how it shapes the fabric of their communities.
While the work is academic, the issue has real-world implications. Washington state and Colorado are currently implementing laws passed by voters last November that regulate and tax the recreational use of the drug. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia already permit marijuana use for medical purposes.
Closer to home, the California Supreme Court ruled earlier this month that local governments have the ability to ban marijuana dispensaries outright -- a move that passed the L.A. City Council in 2012 but was quickly rescinded in the face of public outcry. Partly as a result of that decision, L.A. voters will decide next Tuesday between competing measures that could change how city residents buy and sell medical marijuana.
As advocates stake out various positions in the political sphere, Freisthler and her team are focused on uncovering facts to help inform the debate. The researchers are currently interviewing medical marijuana patients about their health care status, usage patterns and demographics. The information will be aggregated to help fill in a comprehensive picture of medical marijuana use in Los Angeles. The research is part of a five-year National Institute on Drug Abuse  grant that Freisthler received in 2011.
During a recent site visit at the Green Kiss Collective in North Hollywood, Emily Hamilton MSW '11 said solid data in the debate has been hard to find. "There are a lot of false statistics floating around about dispensaries and their effect on neighborhoods," Hamilton said, citing conventional wisdom that a marijuana dispensary will cause neighborhood crime rates to go up.
In fact, an earlier study  the team conducted in Sacramento found no tie between crime rates and medical marijuana dispensaries. There is some evidence that the increased security found at well-regulated shops may actually reduce crime rates in the surrounding areas.
"People are voting on these things, and it's important to be fully informed as opposed to just throwing numbers out there," she added.
|The Green Kiss research team included (from left) research assistant Brian Brown; Emily Hamilton MSW '11; research assistant Ryan Premeaux; Minal Patel, a Ph.D. candidate in Public Health; and Elizabeth Schaper, a second-year Social Welfare student.|
A team of four researchers spends roughly three hours at each dispensary location, which are selected at random to represent a range of economic and geographical circumstances. Patients are given a $20 incentive in return for completing a 5-minute questionnaire, with the option of collecting a $30 gift card if they agree to take part in a second, more comprehensive survey.
The Friday evening traffic at Green Kiss produced a steady stream of respondents, and the team hit their target of 20 completed patient surveys with time to spare.
As the team member responsible for recruiting locations at which data is gathered, second-year Social Welfare student Elizabeth Schaper has seen dispensaries of all stripes.
"I have been in places where they take it extremely seriously. They've given patients printouts of the different chemical compounds that are most active in each strain," she said. "Some of the employees actually have medical backgrounds, and they'll ask you 'What is that you really need?' and then point you in the direction of the right strain.
"And then I've walked into places that are basically a drug dealer in a closet," she said.
Both of the ballot measures in the May 21 city election address the range of quality that Schaper has encountered. Proposition D, which has the backing of the L.A. City Council and labor groups, would cap the number of dispensaries in the city at 135 -- roughly the number that existed before a 2007 moratorium passed by the Council. Proposition F, sponsored by dispensary owners, wouldn't limit the number of dispensaries in the city but would impose financial audits, quality control tests and other oversight of their business practices and products. (A third measure, Proposition E, has been abandoned by its supporters in favor of D.)
The measures' focus on the number of shops in L.A. highlights another area where UCLA Luskin research has informed voters. While estimates of the number of dispensaries have seesawed from 200 to more than 1,700, last September UCLA Luskin released  what was recognized as the most accurate count of dispensaries in the city. To build the list, Freisthler and her team combined city data with information from multiple industry resources, and then cross-checked that list by visiting each address and visually identifying which were actually operating as dispensaries. The snapshot showed that as of Sept. 4, 2012, there were 472 medicinal marijuana stores within city limits.
Despite her intimate knowledge of L.A.'s dispensary scene and her colleagues' track record of producing solid data, Schaper is reluctant to wade into the political debate. "I think it's one of those things where I know too much to make a good decision about it," she said. "As part of this research project I feel like I've abdicated making any decision about [which ballot measure to choose]. I'm just trying to be as unbiased as possible."
Academic evenhandedness aside, the researchers aren't ignorant of the real-world implications of their work. Schaper hopes that a more informed discussion about marijuana use in America will help shed light on informal sources of health care, especially for those who have undiagnosed mental health problems.
Hamilton takes a bit of pride in the fact that her work will help steer policy on an issue that's experiencing a unique historical moment. "That really energized me to become involved in the project," she said.
"It feels like one of those things you'll look back on in 20 years and say to your kids, 'I was there when this was happening.'"