Focus groups are mostly bogus, of course, especially in terms of their news value. The New York Times opinion section, in particular, loves them because the paper is weirdly obsessed with normalizing Trump supporters.
So it collects a bunch of them and asks for their opinions on various policies that they neither care nor know anything about. They answer politely, giving the paper the chance to depict them as normal folks with “concerns,” and then they go home to post memes depicting Michelle Obama with a bone through her nose—one of many actual examples that I’ve discovered via quick Facebook searches after reading those things.
Somewhat similarly, late-night host Jimmy Kimmel’s “person-on-the-street” bits are often hilarious, but also, generally, not at all representative. Last week, for example, he did one where people walking on Hollywood Boulevard were asked to identify Iowa on a map of the United States.
None of the people who made it to air could do it. One said “around here someplace?” while pointing vaguely at the Southwest. Presumably—well, hopefully—most of the people asked were able to identify the Hawkeye State, but showing them wouldn’t have been funny, so they didn’t appear.
But another of Kimmel’s running bits is, by comparison, almost scientific, and it offers solid evidence that most often, though certainly not always, people who are high on weed are perfectly functional humans. The segment—called “Who’s High?”—collects three people on the street, one of whom is stoned, and Kimmel tries to guess which via a series of questions. He’s often wrong, and a lot of the time it’s the last person most people would suspect.
It’s possible there is some social engineering behind this, and it’s not actually scientific, of course, and the producers look for unlikely-seeming stoners who are not obviously high. But even if that’s the case, it’s still true that Kimmel and the audience find it difficult to determine who is stoned.
Imagine trying to do this with alcohol. It wouldn’t work, for obvious reasons.
Kimmel has done about a dozen of these over the past seven years. He was wrong in the very first one, which, interestingly enough, he did in 2016, before recreational cannabis was legal in California. To be fair, two of the three contestants seemed very stonery in appearance and affect, and one of them turned out to be the stoner.
What’s striking is that most of the people participating seem pretty normal, whether they’re stoned or not. One of the questions Kimmel asks is what they do for a living. The stoners have jobs ranging from computer programmer to cashier to teacher. In one case, the person who identified her job as “aspiring YouTuber” was not the stoner, but the guy who said his job was “land surveyor” was. Land surveying is exacting, detailed work. Idiots can’t do it.
The reason stuff like this might work better to normalize weed than any PR campaign ever could is that it’s so real and relatable. Most of the people taking part—even the goofier ones—seem like our family, neighbors or co-workers.
Of course, none of this should lead anyone to conclude that weed is totally harmless; only that it’s totally normal. Pot has different effects on different people, and even on the same people: A stoned person who is able to function well, say, when ambushed to appear on national television one day might the next day, while just as stoned, have trouble following a train of thought.
The science isn’t yet totally clear on this point, but at a minimum, we know that pot can impair cognitive abilities, for example. But there is some science that shows cognitive abilities are, in some cases, enhanced. In very general terms, it appears that occasional users of weed do better cognitively than heavy users do.
Still, an interesting social science experiment would be to ask people to identify Iowa on a map, and then ask them if they use cannabis. It seems likely that their level of cannabis use would not be a factor in whether they know their basic geography.