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Twitter proves to be fertile ground for research into marijuana trends

May 26, 2016
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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New research on individuals' perceptions about marijuana edibles offers some compelling perspectives on state-by-state differences, but the study might be even more noteworthy for how the data were gathered.

The Wright State University researchers who teamed up on the study analyzed Tweets that were collected between May and July of last year, contributing to a growing effort to use social media in order to get a faster read on current drug trends.

“There is an emerging field of using social media to track public health trends,” says Raminta Daniulaityte, PhD, associate professor of community health and associate director of Wright State's Center for Interventions, Treatment and Addictions Research (CITAR) . “It has a lot of potential. But you have to be careful, because we're not always sure what the data is showing. There are no set rules.”

For this study, published online last month in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, the researchers tapped into Twitter's streaming application programming interface that provides free access to up to 1% of all Tweets. In their ongoing research in this area, the group also is studying Web forum data that give them more specificity on the experiences of individuals using marijuana edible products—but in that case no geographic information on the individuals' location.

The newly published data, based on just over 100,000 Tweets that mentioned edibles, show that the products generally are positively perceived, and that postings are more frequent in states allowing recreational and/or medical use of marijuana. However, the presence of some negative Tweets about the effects of the products point to some of the risks associated with their use, the researchers reported.

“The actual concentrations [of THC] are sometimes more, sometimes less than what is being advertised,” says Francois R. Lamy, a study co-author and a postdoctoral research fellow at CITAR and the Ohio Center of Excellence in Knowledge-Enabled Computing. A commonly heard account is that some individuals have ended up ingesting too much of the product because it does not generate an effect as quickly as smoked cannabis would.

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A news release about the study from Wright State reads in part, “The Wright State researchers hope that the results of the study will reinforce the content testing of marijuana edibles as already established by the states of Colorado and Washington.” The researchers believe that labeling information on the products should be improved.

They add that social media research could prove highly beneficial in capturing marijuana trends. Lamy said in the news release, “Considering the actual changes happening across the nation in terms of cannabis legislation, the ability to obtain epidemiological data in real-time through Twitter represents a real advantage from both prevention and harm minimization perspectives. Social media provides a large amount of volunteered data from a larger user base.”

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