Should Scientists Put Surveillance On #WeedTweets To Figure Out What Kids Are Smoking?

Not everyone is stoked about the rise of pot culture.

With pot legalization bills blooming across the country, the opportunity for investment in the cannabis business has never looked so good. Wall Street’s been hustling new pot stocks, and entrepreneurs are innovating toward a weed future. But not all parties are stoked.


A new paper, funded by the National Institutes of Health and authored by researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, warns that soft-headed teens are being exposed to pro-pot messaging on Twitter. And it’s high time, they write, that people pay more attention.

Especially to someone named Weed Tweets™ who tweets at @stillblazingtho.

The study, which was recently published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, analyzed the “sentiment and content” of 2,590 tweets issued by @stillblazingtho between May and December of 2013. Shockingly, it found that Weed Tweets™, who has more than a million followers, tweets about smoking weed. The mastermind of the account also tweets a lot of Seth Rogen reaction shots. Using sentiment analysis tools, the researchers found:

  • 82% of @stillblazingtho’s tweets “were positive about marijuana”
  • 58% of the positive pot tweets “were viewed as jokes or humorous, followed by tweets that implied that marijuana helps you to feel good, relax, or chill”
  • 10% mentioned “blunts, marijuana edibles, or paraphernalia (e.g, bongs, vaporizers)”
  • 10% mentioned “other risky health behaviors (e.g, tobacco, alcohol, other drugs, sex)”

Those are certainly a lot of statistics! But they had more:

Of the total 2,590 tweets sent from @stillblazingtho, 135 (5.21%) contained the use of a hashtag. Only 26 (19.26%) of these hashtags were marijuana specific (eg, #weed, #staystoned, and #stayhigh), while tweets including general hashtags that were non-marijuana related were 109 (80.74%) (eg, #ThingsIWillTeachMyChild, #firstdayofsummer, and #TheSecretToLifeIs).

Then the study analyzed who, exactly, was reading these tweets. Deploying a tool called “Demographics Pro for Twitter,” the researchers discovered that the overwhelming majority of @stillblazingtho’s followers were 17- to 19-year-olds who lived in the United States. Many of @stillblazingtho’s followers also really liked Wiz Khalifa, Drake, and Lil Wayne.

“Moreover, young people are especially responsive to social media influences and often establish substance use patterns during this phase of development,” the authors write. “Thus, it is of concern that so many youth and young adults are following a Twitter handle that depicts marijuana use as a popular and normal social activity.”


The researchers also expressed concern that the majority of @stillblazingtho’s followers were black and Hispanic, suggesting that findings underscored “a critical need to improve understanding on how African Americans and Hispanics engage with social media outlets like Twitter in ways that may exacerbate their marijuana use.”

Putting aside the fact that the researchers didn’t actually do any research into whether @stillblazingtho’s followers smoked weed, or even if their habits constituted a substance abuse problem, as opposed to mere substance use, their other prescription had a draconian ring to it–one that closely echoed how police departments have traditionally kept tabs on the pot-smoking riff raff.

“Despite these limitations, our results stress the need for continued research and surveillance on the pro-marijuana content that is currently being delivered via Twitter,” they write.

Incidentally, over-policing zeal for misdemeanor possession crimes, often targeting minority populations, has reached absurd levels of damage IRL. The researchers did not explain how one might extend an appropriate kind of surveillance to Twitter, but it’s easy to imagine how it could go awry: Targeting populations based on the idea that they “might” smoke pot carries a whiff of Minority Report-level madness.

Not all researchers would agree with the notion that pot smokers need more monitoring. At least one NIH advisory council member suggests that the pathology of drugs like marijuana has been far overhyped. I interviewed Dr. Carl Hart earlier this year about how scientists commonly jump to wrong interpretations of their data. You can read our interview here.


About the author

Sydney Brownstone is a Seattle-based former staff writer at Co.Exist. She lives in a Brooklyn apartment with windows that don’t quite open, and covers environment, health, and data