Pubdate: Thu, 30 Jun 2005
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2005 The Washington Post Company
Author: Marc Fisher
Bookmark: (Opinion)
Bookmark: (Cannabis)


We'd been on the top deck of the ferry churning across Long Island
Sound for just a few minutes last week when my son sidled over and
whispered, "Why are so many people smoking? At home, we almost never
see people smoking."

My 9-year-old wanted to know why smoking was so much more popular in
one part of the country than in another.

As it turns out, I came home to find that our federal tax dollars have
purchased a study of just such differences. For the first time, the
government has analyzed the data on smoking, drinking and drug use all
the way down to the county and ward level. The results are riveting.

My son's observation about smoking was on target: Cigarette smoking in
Washington, Maryland and Virginia -- a home to the tobacco industry --
is well below the U.S. average. And our home, the District's Ward 3,
west of Rock Creek Park, has the city's lowest smoking rate after Ward
4, right across the park (22 and 20 percent of adults surveyed,
respectively). The region's lowest rate is in Northern Virginia, where
only 18 percent said they smoke.

But before highly educated Washingtonians congratulate ourselves on
our health consciousness, mark this: When the survey asked who had
used alcohol in the past month, it found the highest rate of use in
the District -- in staid, serious Ward 3. (A whopping 71 percent,
compared with 47 percent nationwide and in Maryland, 55 percent in
Northern Virginia, and 36 percent in Ward 8 in Southeast.) Ward 3's
affinity for a drink -- just a glass of wine with dinner, of course --
aligns well with the results in similarly overeducated spots such as
Boston's western suburbs and Boulder, Colo.

There appears to be an inverse relationship between smoking and
drinking rates, says Douglas Wright, a research statistician at the
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which
compiled this study from three years of interviews with 207,000 Americans.

Ward 3's D.C. Council member, Kathy Patterson, embraced that news as
another reason to support a proposed ban on smoking in bars and
eateries. "So now I can tell tavern owners that as soon as we go
smoke-free, everyone will drink more," she quipped.

Why do the feds think anyone would respond honestly to a survey about
vices? To assure confidentiality, field interviewers show up at front
doors, hand over a laptop with a headset and then go away for a while
to allow private recollections of altered states. The feds sweeten the
deal with a $30 gratuity. No questions asked about how you use the

While Washington's well-heeled set may argue that its drinking rate
reflects a concern for cardiac health or a penchant for dinner
parties, it's harder to explain why Ward 2 -- Georgetown, Foggy
Bottom, Dupont Circle -- has by far the region's highest marijuana
usage. Fully 8.5 percent of ward residents surveyed said they'd smoked
pot in the past month, as opposed to 4.2 percent in Ward 4, 3.6
percent in Northern Virginia, 4.5 percent in Maryland and 5 percent
nationwide. (Each state defines its regions as it wishes. Maryland
divided itself so oddly as to be useless for pop sociology.)

Ward 2 is also the city's leader in use of illicit drugs other than
pot. Wards 7 and 8 east of the Anacostia River report the least drug
use in the city; they, like Northern Virginia and Maryland, are below
the U.S. average.

You could explain Ward 2's daze, as its council member, Jack Evans,
did, by pointing to college kids at Georgetown and George Washington.
But plenty of places with lots of colleges don't come close to those
numbers. Ward 2 is right up there with the top marijuana usage spots
in the nation -- the island of Hawaii, Portland, Ore., Boulder,
Vermont's Champlain Valley, Northern California, Boston and, for that
matter, virtually the entire state of Massachusetts. (Lowest pot use:

Evans suggests another explanation: "We have a huge influx of single,
young, affluent people. Other wards may be more suburban, more

Wright, the statistician, offers a variation on that idea: "Generally,
drug use, particularly marijuana, is higher in places with higher incomes."

It's an old story: The police focus on drug markets in rough
neighborhoods, while buyers commute carefree from more affluent spots.
Is that fair?
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MAP posted-by: Larry Seguin