Collecting data from cannabis users
“We should care about cannabis users’ perceptions and opinions. The more we listen, the better measurements we could develop.”
Across several research studies, we have spoken to, and collected data from, hundreds of teenagers and young people who use cannabis. The process of collecting and quantifying cannabis use in a diverse population has presented several challenges. We hope that sharing these challenges, and the lessons we have learned, might help in designing and conducting research that can better answer research questions, and better unify the general population and researchers’ interests.
Measuring cannabis use
First things first, how do you measure how much cannabis someone is using? Even considering just one person, this can quickly unravel into a very difficult question to answer (and there is much academic debate about the best way to do this)*. For starters, cannabis comes in many forms, is used in many varied and interesting ways, and is often shared. A standard approach might be to ask how many grams someone uses on a typical day. But people don’t intuitively think in grams.
Participants, especially those who are invested in the research, can become very frustrated to have to pull a number out of thin air. More thorough assessments can be time-intensive, and often hit upon similar hurdles at some point. For example, “roll-a-joint” tasks involve supplying real cannabis and tobacco for participants to prepare as they usually would, which we then weigh separately. In a lot of ways, this task really improves on simply asking about grams. However, the cannabis will inevitably not be ground in the same way that every participant would use, which can affect weight. If you add hash into the mix – with a completely different consistency and texture to herbal cannabis, the result is a participant who cannot complete this task at all.
Ensuring the participant is heard
Cannabis is an important part of many participants’ lives. It can be difficult for people who use cannabis to feel represented by a few options in a questionnaire. As a result, participants often want to provide background information to explain their answers. They don’t just want to quantify their cannabis use and general wellbeing, they also want to explain why they are answering in the ways that they are. This can lead to some participants becoming frustrated by the feeling that their experience is being forced into a box that is not representative of the complexity of their lives and their use of cannabis.
“If a researcher consistently fails to understand a participant’s language, this can reduce the participant’s trust in the researcher’s credentials.”
Another issue arises when thinking about the terminology used to refer to cannabis use. As researchers, we might use different words to refer to drugs and methods of use to the ones used by participants. For example, while we might choose the word ‘joint’ to describe cannabis cigarettes there are many other names they could be called by users, such as ‘zoot’, ‘spliff’, ‘puree’, ‘blunt’, ‘doob’. Some of these terms will be used to describe joints with or without tobacco, others will be used to refer to joints that only have cannabis. Due to this complexity and because it is very important that we understand the type of use that the participant is describing, we often ask them to try to adopt our words and phrases. While this facilitates data collection and analysis, it can also create friction or confusion, especially with heavy cannabis users or younger users for which new terminology can arise quickly. If a researcher consistently fails to understand a participant’s language, this can reduce the participant’s trust in the researcher’s credentials.
For starters, taking the time to explain the purpose and importance of different exercises helps. We have found that this makes participants more engaged in the process. The more engaged the participant is, the happier they will be to really do the work that it takes to provide meaningful and accurate data.
“”Remember the terms they like to use, and work as a translator between people who use cannabis and the research language”
Even with the most engaged participant, remembering so many details about your life is hard. Therefore, patience and empathy are vital. If possible, try to make it easier for participants; remember the terms they like to use, and work as a translator between people who use cannabis and the research language. Understand that sometimes people will get bored and will need a little bit more enthusiasm from you to continue. Acknowledge someone’s frustration when they don’t feel their experience is being understood. Try and take some time to listen to their explanation and make them feel valued.
When it comes to quantifying cannabis use, we should care about cannabis users’ perceptions and opinions. The more that we listen to them, the better measurements we could develop. The end goal should be to develop measurements that can be easily understood and that feel representative and organic for the cannabis users. We believe this would produce the most meaningful answers. At the end of the day, a complete and thorough methodology that is able to encapsulate every type of experience is unlikely. The average participant will understand this, but we should really listen to their experiences and implement feedback where appropriate.
*Freeman, T. P., & Lorenzetti, V. (2020). Moving forwards with the standard THC unit. Addiction.
International Cannabis Toolkit Workshop 2019 (Lisbon Addictions).
By Rachel Lees and Katherine Petrilli
Rachel and Katherine are both PhD students in the Addiction and Mental Health Group at the University of Bath. Katherine’s research focuses on the effects of cannabis potency on mental health. Rachel is researching the mechanisms of treatment seeking and recovery in Cannabis Use Disorder.
The opinions expressed in this post reflect the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the opinions or official positions of the SSA.
The SSA does not endorse nor guarantee the accuracy of the information in external sources or links and accepts no responsibility or liability for any consequences arising from the use of such information.