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In Era of Recreational Marijuana, We Must Do More to Protect Public Health

The many positive aspects of marijuana decriminalization and legalization do not mean we should not be thoughtful as we craft local policies

In addition to smart regulation, it’s also critically important that new opportunities and revenues support communities most affected by racially biased drug enforcement. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/flickr/cc)

As we move into the second month of legal recreational marijuana in California, it’s time to get off the roller coaster that travels between the excitement of legalization and the fear of federal government intervention. What’s really needed are on-the-ground conversations about how we can learn from past missteps in the regulation, permitting, and marketing of alcohol and tobacco. Marijuana cannot be just ‘business as usual,’ nor should governments treat marijuana sales as simply a new revenue stream. That means passing local ordinances to prevent oversaturation of cannabis retail, curtail irresponsible or excessive marketing, and protect youth.

One step that public health and planning agencies can take is adopting local ordinances to prevent overconcentration of cannabis retail. Health impact assessments and ordinances capping operating permits for cannabis retailers can prevent neighborhoods from becoming oversaturated with dispensaries. In Los Angeles, for example, local ordinances prevent cannabis retail from encroaching on most residential neighborhoods and create buffer zones around schools, libraries, and parks. State law bans dispensaries within 600 feet of schools, but municipalities can adopt more protective policies, and some communities have banned cannabis retail altogether. Moving forward, buffer zones and caps on cannabis retail should be informed by new research examining the geographic relationship between dispensaries and youth marijuana use.

We also need stricter policies related to advertising. A few months ago, Eaze, a marijuana delivery service, ran an ad on Muni buses in San Francisco: “hello marijuana, goodbye worries.” This is exactly the type of messaging that should be avoided, since it promotes marijuana as a means of coping with stressors. The SF Municipal Transportation Agency has since banned recreational marijuana ads on public transit, a move that other cities can adopt.

As far as protecting youth, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act prohibits the marketing and sale of marijuana to young people under age 21, bans advertisements near schools and other places frequented by children, and bans smoking within 1000 feet of schools, daycare centers, and youth centers. California also bans edibles in shapes like animals or fruits that appeal to children. Child-proof packaging and limits on potency and portion size are also important safeguards. We must also address emerging health hazards, including products like “cannapop,” a sugary drink mixed with cannabis.

In addition to smart regulation, it’s also critically important that new opportunities and revenues support those communities most affected by racially biased drug enforcement. Decades of unequal enforcement have separated families, depressed economic development, and entrapped hundreds of thousands of people – disproportionately young people of color – in the criminal justice system, facing consequences that can haunt them for much of their lives. In 2018, California will commit $10 million in marijuana revenues to communities most affected by criminalization (this sum will rise to $50 million per year in 2022 and beyond), with funding designated for job training, re-entry, and expunging or reclassifying past marijuana convictions.

Finally, we have the opportunity to use marijuana tax revenues to invest in community-based prevention strategies that promote health and wellbeing. California’s Marijuana Tax Fund commits 60% of revenues to youth programs, including alternative forms of recreation and support for young people. Community investments like increasing access to parks and recreational facilities in park-poor communities, expanding hours at libraries and youth centers, and providing opportunities for artistic and cultural expression connect young people to meaningful social supports and emotional outlets.

Attempts to turn back marijuana legalization risk bringing back underground marijuana markets and recharging racially-biased drug enforcement. Instead, we need to take this opportunity to redress the inequities long driven by marijuana enforcement, enact policies to protect youth and consumers, and invest in community resources – and that means focusing on what’s working and how we can do better.

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Ruben Cantu

Ruben Cantu is a program manager at Prevention Institute, a California nonprofit that advocates for community prevention approaches to improve health and equity.

Katrina Deloso

Katrina Deloso works at Prevention Institute, a California nonprofit that advocates for community prevention approaches to improve health and equity.

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