Upcoming Webinar: Public Health Perspectives in Regulating Non-Medical Marijuana

Apr 14, 2014, 1:41 PM

file Alexander Wagenaar, PhD

 On Thursday, April 17, from 1-2 p.m. (ET), the Network for Public Health Law, Public Health Law Research and the American Society of Law Medicine and Ethics (ASLME) will be holding a free webinar around public health perspectives on regulating non-medical marijuana in states where it has been made legal or decriminalized. Whatever course a state may take, public health’s expertise and experience in public policy means it should be a major voice in the discussion surrounding legislation from the very start. The issue is a critical one now as Colorado and Washington State have legalized the commercial production, distribution and sale of marijuana for non-medical use and a number of other states are considering similar legislation.

“Policy-makers, advocates and others are grappling with how to process licenses, develop regulations and manage production in an industry that is still largely illegal both in the U.S. and around the world,” said Alexander Wagenaar, PhD, Professor in the Institute for Child Health Policy at the University of Florida who will be the moderator for the webinar.

The webinar’s aim is to provide an overview of issues related to non-medical marijuana regulation through, among other things, the lessons learned from decades of alcohol and tobacco regulation and through insights from Washington State’s recent implementation of a marijuana law with participant Laura Hitchcock, JD, Policy, Research & Development Specialist in the public health department of Seattle & King County in Washington State. Additional speakers include Beau Kilmer, PhD, Co-Director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center and Amanda Reiman, PhD, the Policy Manager of the Drug Policy Alliance of California.

>>Register for the webinar Regulating Non-Medical Marijuana: Lessons Learned and Paths Forward.

Ahead of the webinar, NewPublicHealth spoke with Wagenaar about who in public health will find the webinar important, as well as public health’s role both before and after a jurisdiction considers legalizing non-medical marijuana.

NewPublicHealth: Who is the webinar primarily geared toward?

Alexander Wagenaar: There are lots of different audiences that are interested in this, including the public health research community such as academics, scientists, health department and agency staff who are looking at the issue or will be looking at it in the future.

Then there’s a whole set of people that have to deal with the public policy whether this is on their immediate radar or not. They will want to be up to date on what’s happening in the first couple of states that have legalized non-medical marijuana to know what the varied issues are and what they need to be thinking about for when debates and policy discussions begin in their state about whether this is a good idea or not.

NPH: In a state in which marijuana is legalized, what can the role of public health be in minimizing the negative impacts of legalizing non-medical marijuana?

Wagenaar: The public health community should be actively engaged in the debate as states begin a discussion of even considering legalizing recreational use of marijuana, and there should be an open discussion about the risks attached to it.

Some things are very hard to reverse, which is why this is an issue that the public health community should be engaged in at the start. Perhaps states might want to do something intermediate like decriminalize marijuana but not legalize it, because as soon as marijuana is legalized, it’s advertised and marketed and there are constitutional and legal limits on the ability to regulate and limit advertising, marketing and promotion of the product. But if it is decriminalized but still illegal, there’s are still avenues for regulation to limit use and dampen the public health consequences of such use.

So public health should surely be involved in the discussions and debates right from the start and not allow the debate to happen without a very robust look at the potential effects and the potential costs—health care costs, social costs and productivity costs—of a change in policy.

And then if legalizing non-medical marijuana is passed into law, then public health has an immediate role at the table in designing the implementation. Public health knows how to regulate food so that there’s not disease attached with selling food. They know how to regulate tobacco after working on that very straightforwardly and vigorously for a half a century. And they are experienced with alcohol. There are just some of the examples of issues that public health has dealt with in the past that are directly relevant to designing a system for making marijuana legally available to the public, and they should be at the table and intimately involved with designing those systems in a way that perhaps helps avoid some of the problems for new users of marijuana and a larger set of marijuana-related health problems.

In many states it will be the health department implementing the new laws such as inspections of the growers to make sure that they’re not selling marijuana that has dangerous pesticides or contaminated in some other way or they’re not selling product that is much stronger than what the consumer thinks and that is labeled appropriately.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.