Monday, July 19, 2010

Surveys ain't surveys

A good researcher can design a survey to prove anything -- or two surveys that show opposite results. Organisations who commission surveys know this, and spend a lot of time shaping the questions before going live.

So the approach taken by a UK survey that showed 70% of people support the conditional legalisation of cannabis is interesting, especially when commissioned by the Liberal Democrats, who are junior coalition partners in government and who ran on a decriminalisation platform.

Rather than asking the bald question "Do you approve of legalisation" like our Australian equivalent surveys, the Lib-Dem survey gave people options that defined the term explicitly as explained below:

"Rather than just ask whether each drug should be "legalised", the poll gave brief descriptions of three regulatory options and asked the public to pick which they thought most tolerable for each of a series of drugs. The options were:
  • Light regulation (drugs sold like tobacco and alcohol are now)
  • Strict government control and regulation (an example of how government could heavily regulate a legal market in an attempt to minimise harm)
  • and Prohibition (the current status of illegal drugs)."
The "Do you approve of legalisation" question as posed in Australian Household Drug surveys produces a very different result, around 95% against, because "legalisation" is not defined and produces visions of a drug free-for-all among uninformed respondents.

Yet most reformers believe the opposite -- that strictly regulated supply could in fact reduce the amount of drug use by young people because the model offers more control than the present unregulated black market. Under the current  'free-for-all', many teens can get drugs more easily than alcohol, because dealers don't ask for ID and drugs are available in every town and high school.

Australian prohibitionist Gary Christian from Drug Free Australia constantly justifies his position by quoting the 95% opposing figure from our surveys.

But if the UK approach was taken so respondents were making more informed choices, the result might be very different.

Meanwhile most Australian discourse on drug law reform remains in the dark ages, and the prohibitionists continue to peddle figures based on ignorance. 

Respondents to the UK survey were relatively supportive of legalising other, harder drugs as well. 

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