Legalized Cannabis 2.0: Learning from Experience in Denver
Four hundred behavioral and physical health providers, state officials and public health scientists gathered in Denver last week for the first annual National Cannabis Summit. Hosted by the National Council, Advocates for Human Potential and the Addiction Technology Transfer Center Network, the summit took a unique view of cannabis legalization: what are the health benefits and challenges of medical and recreational cannabis? Cannabis usage rates are rising in the United States, regardless of legal status. As public health stakeholders, what do we know and what are we missing when it comes to cannabis, and are we prepared to handle potential health crises stemming from marijuana usage?
Many of the presenters were from states that have legalized cannabis one way or another: Washington, Colorado, Nevada and California. Experts from these states presented a complex picture obscured by lack of research data on marijuana’s effects. Dr. Susan Weiss, Director of the Division of Extramural Research at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, was concerned that the health benefits of cannabidiol (CBD) could be overshadowed by the negative effects of smoke inhalation and increased tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) concentrations. However, due to marijuana’s status as a Schedule 1 substance, procuring federal funding to study these hypotheses has proven extremely difficult. Other researchers and state officials echoed this sentiment, saying that their limited ability to study marijuana has reduced the ability to create fact-based policy and effective addiction treatment plans.
Andrew Freedman, the former “marijuana czar” of Colorado who coordinated the legalization process in 2014, urged officials to learn from Colorado’s mistakes when legalizing the substance. The lack of research around marijuana edibles meant Freedman did not have enough data to caution a slower rollout of them, and state officials were criticized when a 19-year old student consumed six times the recommended dose of edibles and jumped to his death in 2015. Additionally, the initial public health campaigns to deter youth marijuana usage were criticized for being heavy-handed, asking young users if they wanted to be “lab rats.” Freedman ended the summit by recommending that attendees learn from these lessons when legalization is brought up as a possibility in their states.
Summit attendees may not have left Denver with a complete roadmap to move forward, but they did leave with good directions and suggestions to avoid the roadblocks seen in other states. Attendees were encouraged to be vocal when discussing marijuana in the future and to stick to what the public health field knows best: the facts.