If he had to do it all over again, Colorado’s former marijuana czar would approach cannabis legalization by gathering loads more data, taking a calculated approach to edibles and including an even greater cohort of public health voices.
Andrew Freedman, now a consultant for states and cities trying to develop cannabis regulations, delivered the closing keynote speech Wednesday at the National Cannabis Summit, a three-day conference to explore best practices on approaching topics such as public health, safety, research, prevention and treatment efforts.
He told officials and researchers gathered in Denver that were he launching new legalization efforts he would focus data collection and analyses efforts on problematic use. He would also rethink home-grows, go slow on edibles, fund a glut of surveys and put tax revenue dollars toward public health needs instead of school construction, he said.
Public sentiment and grassroots movements are advancing legalization campaigns at light speed, leaving state regulators scrambling to build comprehensive and thoughtful policies on the fly, Freedman said. His hope is that others can learn from Colorado’s successes and its stumbles as it became the first state to regulate and tax the sale of cannabis for adult-use.
“There’s a lot that we did not achieve in Colorado that I think version 2.0 could achieve in other states,” he said.
Colorado made some missteps in the early stages of legalization, Freedman said, highlighting case studies on youth prevention and edibles.
First, Colorado “ran into a messaging problem” with youth marijuana use data.
After national data showed rates increased between 2013 and 2014, “we got berated,” Freedman said, because state officials — at the behest of public health data experts — proclaimed that the gains were not statistically significant. When the rates dipped from 2014 to 2015, officials were reassured of the need to wait before having accumulated enough years of data to develop conclusions.
“We have to keep patient with data,” Freedman said.
Colorado also missed a mark on youth prevention campaigns, he said, noting the push-back from schools and the marijuana industry on the Colorado Department of Public Health’s “Don’t Be a Lab Rat” teen pot use campaign. Boulder Valley School District and others chastised the effort for being too heavy-handed and stigmatizing.
Colorado officials regrouped and later found success with campaigns such as “Protect What’s Next,” which highlighted future goals and potential while providing quick data points on health effects and consequences of underage marijuana use, as well as the state’s “Good to Know” campaign that provided resources for parents and teachers to discuss with children and teens.
Another win, he said, was the allocation of marijuana tax revenue toward behavioral health hires in schools.
On the edibles front were several troubling stories and trends, including the death of a college student who ate six times the recommended amount of a marijuana edible, and increases in emergency room visits and poison control calls, he said.
Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s move to ban edibles was ultimately unsuccessful, but Freedman saw it as a good message: “let’s scale back and start working our way back up,” he said.
The state eventually addressed some concerns about edibles by instituting labeling and packaging requirements and barring shapes such as animals, people and candy.
However, conclusions and solutions that took 18 months or more could have been achieved in quicker fashion, he said.
There are “large repository of good data sets that are out there not really speaking to each other,” he said.
For example, the seed-to-sale system could have been better mined to see that edibles were selling more quickly in the recreational market than in the medical market and the concentration of those sales were in tourist-heavy areas.
Noting that revenue should not be a paramount focus of legalization, Freedman said that marijuana tax revenue would be better spent in areas of public health and public needs rather than “pet projects” such as education and transportation.
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“I’m of the mind that most of the pet projects are wrong,” he said.
As Colorado quickly learned, earmarking $40 million for school construction projects resulted in public confusion that marijuana money was solving school funding woes — when it barely put a dent in the issues.
The money instead could be allocated for programs — including housing for the homeless — that don’t receive a lot of funding from other sources and instead would show a measurable impact, he said.
Freedman hammered on the need for the inclusion and participation of a variety of public health officials throughout the legalization process as well as a need for more robust data and research.
The calls for data and research were themes throughout the three-day conference, sponsored by the National Council for Behavioral Health, Advocates for Human Potential and the Addiction Technology Transfer Center.
On Tuesday, Susan Weiss, director of extramural research for the National Institute on Drug Abuse, lamented reports that an expansion of federal marijuana research efforts was halted by the Department of Justice. Such a move would leave the University of Mississippi as the sole supplier of marijuana for research purposes.
“NIDA would be really, really happy if there were other growers,” she said.
Weiss also expressed concern about how new legalization laws are outpacing research. Marijuana science is not influencing policy, she said.
That’s a problem when giant question marks hover over long-term outcomes, the potential negative effects on developing brains and bodies, and the potential beneficial therapeutic possibilities for the plant’s components, she said.
“This is heartbreaking because this is happening now and we should be learning from it,” she said, adding that, “the federal/state differences are really not helpful in moving this along.”