How Reddit’s r/trees Helped Scientists Make Marijuana Discoveries
Reddit users subscribed to a popular marijuana forum are helping researchers identify trends and patterns in cannabis consumption.
A new peer-reviewed study, which has been accepted for publication in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, analyzed more than two million posts found on the site’s largest marijuana-related subreddit from 2010 to 2016. The research team made a series of discoveries, including a few that might seem obvious to regular consumers (e.g. dabbing is gaining in popularity, but users still largely favor smoking cannabis flower).
Nonetheless, the study contributes unique insights to the growing body of international cannabis research. Among research team’s key takeaways was just how high the average “ent” gets on five different forms of cannabis.
(Although researchers didn’t specify which subreddit the study examined, their description in the paper leaves little room for doubt that it was r/trees, where enthusiasts refer to themselves as “ents,” an homage to the tree-resembling Lord of the Rings characters; trees is a common slang term for cannabis.)
How high do Reddit users get on average from smoking, vaping, dabbing, taking edibles or using butane hash oils (BHO) like shatter?
Researchers sought to answer that question by looking for keywords and tracking the subreddit’s 1-10 “user-reported subjective highness” rating system. Though it’s admittedly not scientific, a redditor reporting a  would generally be considered to have a light buzz, whereas a  signifies a very potent experience.
Here is the average r/trees high for five forms of cannabis, on a scale of 1-10:
- Smoking: [6.8]
- Vaping: [6.7]
- Edibles: [7.2]
- Dabbing: [7.8]
- Butane hash oil: [7.2]
So in terms of intensity of a high, the crowdsourced data puts dabbing at the top—which isn’t especially surprising since dabbing typically involves heating up and inhaling concentrated, high-THC cannabis extracts. Vaping appears to produce the least intense high on average.
(For the record, the researchers distinguished between dabbing and BHO products, which are commonly used to dab, because of differences in terminology; one is a method, the other refers to products.)
Of course, more people are getting into dabbing as more states have legalized marijuana in some form, giving many users a greater product selection. Dabbing also may be increasingly attractive, the study authors wrote, because “it requires fewer ‘hits’ and produces stronger effects.”
The new study of Reddit posts also examined adverse effects of cannabis consumption, such as anxiety, coughing, nausea, vomiting and memory problems.
In general, the researchers found that “very few adverse effects were reported,” and the study showed that “there were no statistically significant differences in adverse effect term occurrence across products,” based on the subreddit post analysis.
But since r/trees is an online community that generally celebrates cannabis and promotes legalization of the plant, it’s not entirely surprising that there weren’t a large number of posts focusing on potential negative affects of marijuana.
Accordingly, researchers also examined other keywords frequently included in Reddit posts, and found evidence that first-time cannabis consumers seek out r/trees and its resident ents as a source of good information about how to have a fun and safe experience.
“The frequent occurrence of the word ‘first’ for vaping, dabbing, and edibles indicate that many posters are using or considering using for the first time,” they wrote. “With diverging medical and scientific opinions regarding the efficacy and safety of cannabis use, new and experienced cannabis users may be seeking out peer-generated information in online communities and social media about these newer forms of use.”
Why this study matters
“Analysis of social media data has been used to complement other epidemiologic methods as a strategy for understanding emerging trends in real time with limited social desirability or recall bias,” the study authors noted. “Despite the limited ability to determine the representativeness of creators of social media content and thus inform generalizability, social media data analysis can uncover behaviors not captured in traditional surveillance and inform terminology and emerging behaviors that larger scale health surveys may wish to incorporate.”
And that’s exactly what this study did—leverage data from a unique and popular social media site to paint a different kind of informative picture of the emerging marijuana landscape.