50,000 Feet High and Climbing

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Flying is full of small talk, and one of the first questions people usually ask is what I do for a living. When people ask me about my job they get the spiel. First I tell them that I’m working on my Ph.D. and that I study clinical psychology. Usually the brilliant asker will say “psychology huh? So are you analyzing me right now?” No. I am not analyzing you. But now I’m judging you for your asinine question.

The next part of the spiel is that, yes, while I do study clinical psychology I don’t plan on practicing as a therapist. Most people are surprised to find the majority of doctoral students in clinical Ph.D. programs are not interested in clinical practice at all but in psychological research. This prompts the person to ask, “What do you study then? What’s your research?” Now, most of my grad student peers study such obscure phenomena that the unsuspecting victim who asks about their research will undoubtedly exhibit glazing of the eyes and suddenly remember they have somewhere else very important to be when words like “salivary alpha-amylase” and “mesocorticolimbic dopamine system” start being thrown around. Marijuana, however, does not provoke this effect. Most people are generally interested in my work, and I am blessed that I get to have discussions about my passion with as many people as I do. The usual passenger banter means I tend to have a lot of these discussions on airplanes.

One interaction I had while flying sticks out as particularly salient in my mind. I was sitting next to a man in his late thirties. The man introduced himself and began with the customary small talk. I asked what he was all about and he said he was a musician. This did not surprise me because he looked like a musician. I mean he really looked like a musician. Now, I must stop and clarify something. I do not love flying. I find it much more enjoyable, however, after a scotch… or three. When the drink cart came around the man insisted on buying me a drink. (Okay, ‘insisted’ might be a stretch…) Right as the second free scotch began to take effect–and I was most certainly shaping up to be first-in-show, I mean fifty thousand feet and climbing– the man asked me what I do for a living. I gave him the spiel, and I immediately had a captive audience in my leather-clad seat-mate.

Now, no one is completely objective regarding their own research because if they were, they wouldn’t care enough to study it in the first place. I obviously cannot be entirely unbiased in the way I approach cannabis research, but as a scientist I have a duty to approach research questions objectively so as to reduce bias in the outcomes. People often ask me about my opinion on the true harm of the use of the plant and my political views towards its status as a controlled substance. While I clearly have a stance on those subjects, it’s important when I discuss research findings with others that I attempt to do so as objectively as possible. I try to present the key studies that I often cite in my own research to tell a narrative, not ramble and assert my own opinions. I have no idea where any one person stands on these issues and I want the research to be heard and speak for itself, not be disregarded as political fluff. Nevertheless, if the person is obviously a pothead, as ZZ Top sitting next to me clearly was, it’s game on.

The next two hours of the flight turned into a semi-belligerent one-sided debate, with me flinging zinger after zinger, accosting the ignorant national organizations who still believe, by definition, that marijuana is a drug with 1) high potential for abuse, and 2) no recognized medicinal properties. I laughed about reefer madness and told the man the story of when my grandmother told my mother she shouldn’t go to keggers in her twenties because someone could put marihuana in her drink and she’d NEVER KNOW. That’s real. To be honest, I was on a roll and really cracking myself up.

As the plane began to prepare for descent, my new musician friend asked me the number one question I hear: “Do you think marijuana should be legal?” My elegant reply was “duh.” Turns out, the man was not pro-pot at all. He laughed and said, “I’d never want that shit to be legal. Really messes people up. I tried it a few times in college but stopped because I didn’t want to get addicted. There’s no way I’d want my kids near it.” The problem is there are plenty of things I could have done with these statements. I could have cited the studies suggesting that marijuana is less dependency forming than iced tea, or the majority of people in treatment for marijuana related problems are only there because they’re court mandated for crimes like simple possession. I could have had a legitimate dialogue with this man about the benefits of talking to your children about marijuana as a substance for adult consumption like alcohol, to distinguish it from other substances of abuse like, say, heroin. The numbers show us that marijuana is actually easier for teens to buy than alcohol in schools, so business as usual isn’t working. There’s a lot I could have done here, but instead I just stared at him and took a well-earned little internal cringe.

What we do know in psychology about attitude change is that when you’re talking to someone who has any level of ambivalence and are of two minds about an issue, if the person arguing adopts one stance on an issue the other stance will become even more salient in the mind of the ambivalent person. Meaning if someone has reasons to both like and dislike the color blue, and you go on and on about how amazing blue is, they’ll end up deciding they really don’t like the color. Instead, you have to acknowledge both sides of the coin for the person to know what you are saying is relevant to them. If I’d stopped for one second to gauge how this man was feeling about what I was saying I could have adopted a less biased approach. If I’d acknowledged that I could understand why he’d feel that way and then also presented the data I might have changed this man’s opinion, or at the very least moved his attitude to be more open to hearing the information in the future as we begin to have a national dialogue about cannabis. Instead I completely pigeonholed myself as a marijuana zealot. I knew nothing I said from there on out would be heard. I’d lost my legitimacy. More importantly, I’d profiled this man and stereotyped cannabis users. I think I’m most embarrassed about that last part.