How to Lie With Statistics

The definition of propaganda is, "Information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view. The dissemination of such information as a political strategy." When it comes to information about drug use, the government is famous for using propaganda to maintain its view that drugs and crime go together like peanut butter and jelly, usually through appeals to fear, a propaganda technique in which claims are made for the specific purpose of instilling fear in others. Starting way back in the early 1900's, government propaganda about the criminal behaviors associated with drug use have been targeted at Chinese and Mexican immigrants and continue to target poor communities of color. The combination of a population feared by the general public combined with a behavior that supposedly makes people lose all sense of right and wrong has been a powerful tool in maintaining our nation's racist and classist drug laws. However, we are not the nation we once were, technology and access to information has made us a nation of skeptics, of questioners, and of people who no longer take the government's message at face value. This shift in willingness to blindly follow government agendas has been reflected in the growing support for marijuana legalization and a rising belief that people who use marijuana should not be imprisoned. However, this awakening has not stopped the government from pursuing propagandistic messages as a means to prevent policy change and cloud the public's ability to see the truth.

A recent example of this came from the office of the Drug Czar, amidst a research study looking at the substance using behaviors of those arrested for crime. Although the outcome of the study was framed by Gil Kerlikowske as, "Marijuana is the drug most often linked to crime in the United States", a closer look reveals the roots of old school reefer madness.

In this case, the drug crime connection claim is made based on interviews and urine tests conducted on men who had been arrested in five cities across the country, Sacramento, Denver, Chicago, New York and Atlanta. The study reported the instance of a positive urine test and what substance was most commonly detected in that test. It's simple really, and anyone with a basic statistics class can see the fallacies, but, just in case it's been while since you have practiced the art of statistical analysis, let me break it down for you. Here are three ways to break through the propaganda and get to the truth:

While Kerlikowske has singled out marijuana as being linked to crime, the study did NOT report alcohol use by the participants. According to a report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, "An estimated 37% of state prisoners serving time for a violent offense in 2004 said they were under the influence of alcohol at the time of the offense". The lack of information given regarding the alcohol use and intoxication at the time the crime was committed prevents the public from getting the whole picture, but, more worrisome is that it distorts the ability to make evidence informed policy recommendations and to fully understand the relationship between intoxication and crime, as this study purports to do. Could we accurately assess the relationship between nutrition and obesity without including data on how much fast food the population is consuming? Since this story came out, attempts have been made to obtain the data on the alcohol, use, but without success.

  • Surprising to no one, marijuana, the most commonly used illicit substance in the general population by a longshot, was the most commonly found substance in the urine of these men. Rates of marijuana detection ranged from 37% in Atlanta to 58% in Chicago. What does this mean? It means that marijuana, the most commonly used illicit substance in the general population, is also the most commonly used illicit substance among this sample of men who committed crimes. Does this mean that marijuana use is "linked" to crime? Absolutely not. In fact, it DOES point to other substances being more likely to be found in this sample than in the general population. For example, 42% of adults 12 and older report using marijuana in their lifetime, compared with 5% who have tried methamphetamine. In this study, however, 40% of those arrested in Sacramento tested positive for methamphetamine, and 54% for marijuana. Furthermore, because marijuana stays in a person's system for longer than other substances, it is possible that the participants had used marijuana on occasions other than that which landed them in jail.

  • Underplaying the role of drug prohibition in the creation of crime. When Kerlikowske denounces legalization outright he is ignoring the role of the illicit drug market in fueling the crime he seeks to stop. Furthermore, his short sighted comment that drug use, "is not a moral failing, but a brain disease that can be prevented, treated, and from which people can recover," shows an ignorance about the role of poverty, race and power not just in drug use, but in who gets arrested, who gets treatment, and how much stigma they must endure under the label of "addict".

    As the nation becomes more enlightened about marijuana use and the racial and economic implications of the failed War on Drugs, these claims by our country's Drug Czar sounds farther and farther from the voice of the people and more and more out of touch with modern day drug policies including decriminalization, overdose prevention and harm reduction. Like with so many other social issues such as gender equality and gay rights, the people will lead, and hopefully, the politics will follow. And, as with these other social issues, as the public become more informed, they are less susceptible to the propaganda.