Thursday, October 13, 2011

Los Angeles Pressures Scientists Into Retracting Medical Pot Study

Last month, we wrote about a new study by Santa Monica think tank RAND, which demonstrated that neighborhood crime actually increased after a number of medical marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles were closed. These data flew in the face of the anecdotal claims of California's law enforcement community, which has argued for years that such dispensaries are a magnet for crimes like burglary. Well, in an illustration of what happens when scientists produce research that doesn't serve the interests of the state, fierce criticism from LA's city attorneys has led RAND to pull the study report from their website. According to spokesman Warren Robak, "As we've begun to take a look at the report, we decided it's best to remove it from circulation until that review is complete."

The LA Times describes the city's objections to the study as follows: the RAND team failed to ensure that the dispensaries closed last June by a city ordinance actually shut their doors; its time frame (10 days before and after the closure date) was too brief to capture relevant crime trends; and the study only looked at minor property crimes, rather than a wider range of offenses. All of these objections are fair, but were acknowledged as limitations of the research in the study report. There's simply no such thing as a piece of social science research that's problem-free. Moreover, their objection to the short time frame makes no sense: the fact that property crimes jumped 60% in the neighborhoods surrounding closed dispensaries suggests a real relationship at work. Los Angeles seems to be suggesting that such crimes would've plummeted after this spike if RAND had studied the neighborhoods long enough; is this really any more likely than a continuation of elevated crime rates?

Looking more closely, it appears that scientific rigor isn't really what's bothering Los Angeles. The RAND report is just one study, after all, and no serious scientist would say that it conclusively answers the question of whether pot dispensaries cause crime. Yet it's something that critics of the statist party line on medical marijuana can point to, and the statists don't want that. In their letter to the study's lead author, city attorneys Jane Usher and Asha Greenberg wrote, "Until you publicly retract your work, we expect the Rand publication to be referenced nationwide, at incalculable avoidable harm to public health and safety." In other words, we don't like what your work found, and we demand you publicly repudiate it. It remains to be seen, of course, what the results of RAND's review might be; frankly, we'd be a little surprised if they didn't put the study right back online. Ultimately, when it comes to social science research, RAND is on firmer ground than the city of Los Angeles, and no one likes to see what appears to be an attempt to censor science.

(Full disclosure: I used to work as a consultant to RAND, and while I haven't worked with any of the researchers involved in this study, I do know some of them.)

14 comments:

  1. So, does anyone have a saved copy of the report? Link?

    ReplyDelete
  2. There are substantial technical problems with the report. RAND will release a revised version of the report when those problems can be corrected.

    RAND reports are only withdrawn when a problem has been identified with the underlying science. They do not remove reports because findings are controversial; there are lots of controversial reports on RAND's webpage.

    ReplyDelete
  3. My guess is the changes will be superficial (drawing more attention to study limitations, etc.). And no, this is a good deal more controversial than most of what RAND publishes.

    ReplyDelete
  4. You are correct that this is probably more controversial than the average RAND report, but certainly not in the top 10. Moreover, this is only truly controversial with LA City officials... with whom RAND has almost no business relationship. It is hard to understand how they would pressure RAND.

    ReplyDelete
  5. It's not as though LA can shut RAND down or anything, but they do a lot of community-based research in the city; losing that relationship would hurt them. Not to mention that the large majority of their funding comes from government. My guess is that they're thinking about their reputation, and avoiding the bad press that LA can certainly create for them. This response makes them look thorough and careful.

    ReplyDelete
  6. RAND operates three federally funded research institutes. Given the recent chill from DC, it would probably not take much for a federal funding ban for agencies that support "irresponsible" research. It's probably reasonable for RAND to at least perform some due diligence when such serious accusations are leveled - however spurious the charges actually are.

    ReplyDelete
  7. What they don't want is to be politicized, one way or the other.

    ReplyDelete
  8. "at incalculable avoidable harm to public health and safety." typical hyperbolic fear-mongering. When they start using blown out speech like th is, you *just know* they're full of it. And by it, I mean B-U-L-L-S-H-I-T

    ReplyDelete
  9. Awesome. The way I hear people gripe and moan about rain you'd think they consisted mainly of sugar.

    ReplyDelete
  10. This is what happens when government fantasies collide with reality. So, in true 1984 fashion, reality is crumpled up and shoved into a memory hole.

    ReplyDelete
  11. The fact that RAND had to retract a report due to significant technical problems is a much bigger threat to the reputation of the organization than the "controversial findings" every could have been. The reason they pulled the report was because they could not stand behind the conclusions, not because the conclusions irritated the City Attorney's office.

    You claimed to know the authors. Why don't you contact them and ask if they still stand behind their report? Some of them don't even work at RAND so they should be able to speak freely.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Are they scared of the results? Are they afraid that medical marijuana will help too many people in pain and therefore, they will have to legalize it?

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.