A retired doctor recently included an eye-catching statistic in a commentary in The Providence Journal urging the legalization of marijuana in Rhode Island.
"Surveys of teens in high school reveal that knowing a classmate who sells cannabis is 90 times more common than knowing a classmate who sells alcohol," wrote James P. Crowley, a past president of the Rhode Island Medical Society and professor emeritus of medicine at Brown University, in a piece published Dec. 6, 2014.
Crowley cited the statistic to demonstrate that cannabis is the most commonly sold drug in schools. He warned that its prohibition introduces teens to an underground culture of increasingly more dangerous substances. Crowley supports legislation that would regulate, rather than prohibit cannabis.
(In 2013, Rhode Island became the 15th state to decriminalize non-medical marijuana possession; anyone caught with up to one ounce is subject to a $150 fine instead of facing a misdemeanor criminal charge.)
While we were doubtful about an underground culture of selling alcohol in schools, we wondered whether Crowley was right.
We sent him an email asking him for his source.
We also reached out to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to see what comparable statistics these federal agencies had. All responded they did not have data to verify the statement.
When Crowley got back to us, he attributed the information to Jared Moffat, director of Regulate Rhode Island, a group that supports legalizing marijuana. Moffat, in turn, referred us to a survey of students, ages 12 to 17, published in 2012 by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.
The "National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse XVII: Teens," found that 44 percent of the 1,003 students surveyed reported they knew a student who sold drugs at their school.
Among that 44 percent, 91 percent reported that they knew a student who sold marijuana on school grounds while about 1 percent, said they knew a student who sold alcohol.
The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University did not pose the same question to students in previous surveys, and did not publish a 2013 survey.
We reached out to Rhode Island KidsCount and to the state Department of Education to see what information they might have for Rhode Island students. KidsCount did not track that particular information.
Elliot Krieger, spokesman for the state Department of Education, referred us to the "SurveyWorks" student survey of 2013-2014.
Among the roughly 32,000 Rhode Island students who offered a response, 10.2 percent said someone had sold or given them an illegal drug on school property in the past year. Similarly, 9.5 percent reported that they had been under the influence of alcohol at school in the same timeframe.
We also asked Robert Houghtaling, director of the East Greenwich Drug Program, for his take on Crowley’s claim that high school pot dealers far outnumbered students selling alcohol.
"Kids usually don’t have to sell alcohol. It’s so easily accessible," Houghtaling said."They steal it from their parents, secure a fake ID, or arrange for someone to buy it for them.
"In terms of using, alcohol is still the predominantly most-used drug," he said. "Alcohol is so prevalent people view it as a rite of passage."
James P. Crowley wrote that "Surveys of teens in high school reveal that knowing a classmate who sells cannabis is 90 times more common than knowing a classmate who sells alcohol."
But he could only cite one survey, and we couldn’t find any others that asked the same question. One data point does not a trend make.
In addition, his statement suggests that the findings of this survey reflect the results from all students polled. It doesn’t. It only looked at the subset of students who said they knew of someone who sold drugs in school.
Because the statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context, we rate it Half True.
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