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Social Issues and Policy-Making by the Numbers

October 2, 2012 --
By Michele Corriel

College Office
D. Mark Anderson. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.

D. Mark Anderson, assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Economics, takes students beyond numbers, graphs and pie charts with his myth-busting research, getting to the heart of social issues like medical marijuana laws, risky sexual behavior and how state-set high school dropout ages affect juvenile crime.

By focusing his research on current trends, and keeping up with data that could influence policy-making, Anderson is breaking new ground, if not traditional suppositions.

For example, common belief held that the visually disturbing “Montana Meth Project” billboards and television commercials, which showed teens succumbing to self-mutilation and other abusive behaviors, would convince teens not to try methamphetamines. However, Anderson’s research found that the ad campaign had very little or no effect on behaviors. In fact, meth use was already going down nationwide as part of larger societal trends.

Anderson’s latest research led him to look at the societal impacts of medical marijuana laws.
“I wanted to see if we could look at the economic and social effects of the laws being passed,” Anderson says. “The first thing we wanted to look at was spillover into the recreational markets.”
By looking at the problem through the lens of economics, Anderson found that the price of recreational marijuana decreased in states where laws were passed, indicating an increase in supply.
Once he had this evidence, he looked at whether marijuana might be a substitute for alcohol. Not knowing what he would find, he looked at alcohol-related traffic fatalities and found they were falling in states with medical marijuana laws. The study also found that beer sales had dropped in those states, bolstering the assumption that marijuana was replacing alcohol.
“I’m interested in the unintended consequences of policies,” Anderson says. “The next research project will look at workplace injuries in states where medical marijuana laws have passed.”
Popular media outlets frequently take notice of Anderson’s papers. His 2011 paper “Medical Marijuana Laws, Traffic Fatalities and Alcohol Consumption,” which was co-authored by Dan Rees at the University of Colorado, Denver, was covered by Popular Science, The Wall Street Journal and ABC News. “Medical Marijuana Laws and Teen Marijuana Use,” which is currently under review by an academic journal, received media attention from CBS News, MSNBC News, Yahoo! News and The Wall Street Journal. A 2012 paper, “Does Shortening the School Week Impact Student Performance?” was featured in The Atlantic Journal-Constitution and “Does Information Matter? The Effect of the Meth Project on Meth Use among Youths,” 2010, was highlighted in the Boise Weekly, Denver Post and Montana CBS News.

Updated: 06/19/2013