Pubdate: Wed, 27 Dec 2017
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2017 Los Angeles Times


In advance of the legalization of recreational marijuana sales on Jan.
1, there have been lots of debates over the details of the cannabis
business. How many feet should pot shops be from schools or daycare
centers? How many acres may a marijuana farmer cultivate? Who should
be eligible for a license to sell and who shouldn't?

But there's been much less discussion over an equally important question 
raised by the end of prohibition in California: What is the right public 
health message to send to adults who can now legally buy and use
marijuana? Voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 64 last year and 
polls continue to show broad support for legalization. But just because 
marijuana is legal doesn't mean it is risk-free.

With just days to go, public health agencies are scrambling to put
together education campaigns before Jan. 1. But experts in the field
say they face a big problem: There simply isn't enough research into
the impact of adult marijuana use to offer a lot of proven and
practical health guidance.The federal government's restrictions on
marijuana research serve no one -- not the advocates of legalization,
nor its opponents.

Earlier this year the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and
Medicine released the first comprehensive look at marijuana research
in nearly two decades. A panel of experts analyzed more than 10,000
studies related to marijuana usage and cancer, mental health,
accidents and a host of other health issues.

The report found some compelling evidence of risks, as well as some
medicinal benefits. Long-term cannabis smokers were more likely to
have respiratory problems. There was substantial evidence of a link
between frequent marijuana use and the development of schizophrenia.
Women who smoked pot while pregnant were more likely to have babies
with lower birth weights. On the other hand, the drug was found to be
effective in reducing chronic pain.

Nevertheless, despite those findings, the overwhelming conclusion of
the report was that the effects of marijuana use are still largely a
mystery and that the lack of evidence-based information poses a public
health risk.

The problem is that marijuana is still illegal under federal law and
is classified as a Schedule 1 drug with no medicinal value and a high
potential for abuse. The federal government has strict limits on
studies involving the drug, which makes it hard for researchers to get
funding or to get access to the quantity and quality of cannabis
needed for in-depth analysis. The result is that there is little
conclusive evidence on marijuana's effects -- good or bad.

But as more and more states legalize medicinal and recreational use
for adults, the lack of conclusive science leaves public health
officials and regulators in a bind. They have a mandate to set limits
on marijuana in order to protect the public and to provide accurate
and unbiased information so that adults can make informed choices. But
they can't do their jobs well without more research.

For example, the National Academies report concluded there is
"substantial evidence" that using marijuana before driving increases
the risk of being involved in a crash. But there has been little
research into what -- if any -- amount of marijuana use is considered
safe for driving. Or how long a person should wait to drive after
consuming cannabis. (The lack of research in this area is also a
problem for law enforcement; there is not yet a reliable way to
measure cannabis intoxication.)

There hasn't been much research into the impact of the many new,
highly concentrated cannabis products or into how different cannabis
products -- from edibles to lotions, balms and oils -- affect
different people. That increases risk to users. (Most cities and
states that have allowed adult use of marijuana have seen an increase
in emergency room visits for poisoning associated with edibles.) Nor
has there been adequate study into what kinds of messages resonate
with young people and adults, which makes it harder to design an
effective health education campaign.

The federal government's restrictions on marijuana research serve no
one -- not the advocates of legalization, nor its opponents. More than
40 states have legalized some form of cannabis for medical or
recreational use, despite the lack of evidence-based information on
its effects. Surely even the Trump Administration -- which has been no
friend to science -- can see the value in having more research on the
health impacts of marijuana. It should remove the drug from Schedule 1
designation. If it won't act, Congress ought to take steps to allow
more marijuana research.