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UW Expert: WA Legal Pot Requires Public Health Vigilance

by Matt Rosenberg June 17th, 2013

Voter-approved legalization of marijuana last fall in Washington state via I-502 may well improve regulation, oversight, social justice outcomes and revenue collection around use of the drug, but at the same time will warrant ongoing scrutiny for potential public health problems, particularly among the young, according to a new paper published by a University of Washington drug addiction expert in the journal Frontiers of Psychiatry.

In the free, full-text “open access” article online titled “Legalization of Marijuana: Unraveling Quandries for the Addiction Professional,” Roger A. Roffman of UW’s School of Social Work says he’s concerned the new status quo will “convey an erroneous message that marijuana use has no risks,” in turn causing attitude changes, greater marijuana use and greater detrimental health effects, particularly among youth.

Roffman also warns that the “profit motives” of the new legal industry will create friction against planned controls under the new state law on the advertising, sales and distribution, and potency of marijuana, and that the risk of increased injuries and accidents from driving under the influence of legal pot should be a priority concern.

Roffman, an emeritus professor at UW whose considerable professional experience in drug addiction policy and prevention stretches back to the 1960s and includes a stint in Vietnam, recommends some of the key elements that should be included in a future Washington state report card evaluation on controlling the potential downside of legal marijuana.

He writes, “among the outcomes I hope to see, in contrast with what we have witnessed prior to legalization, are:


  • “fewer young people initiating marijuana use prior to age 21;
  • fewer students struggling with school performance as a consequence of marijuana use;
  • a smaller percentage of users becoming marijuana dependent;
  • more of those who become dependent receiving effective treatment;
  • fewer traffic accidents in which marijuana smoking is a contributing factor;
  • and more accurate knowledge held by the public concerning marijuana’s effects on health and behavior.”

  • Roffman says the state law won’t really begin to take full effect until late 2014, at which time it will become even more crucial to begin to monitor the public health outcomes more closely, especially in relation to youth and teen usage and effects.

    The state liquor control board earlier this month released its initial draft rules for implementing Washington’s legal marijuana law approved by voters.

    Roffman adds in the article that he has high hopes for Washington’s legal pot law in terms of its potential to focus attention on public health challenges, because it requires the state to spread prevention and health data geared to middle school and high-school age students, and provides related outreach funding.

    Roffman’s article is not the only recent one accenting possible public health effects of legal marijuana in Washington, for children.

    In a late May 2013 article researchers from Seattle’s Children’s Hospital and UW warn that based on experiences in Colorado under a medical marijuana law there, that cannabis-infused products soon to be more broadly available in Washington such as cookies and candies could pose notable toxicology risks for children.

    Nationally, there is a growing body of literature on the possible health effects of marijuana.

    A study from the National Cancer Institute last year suggested that one risk factor for testicular cancer may be marijuana use, as did another study from the University of Southern California.

    Public Data Ferret’s Open Science+Public Health archive

    A 2009 University of California-San Francisco study indicted increased risk of cancers and psychiatric problems among males from marijuana use.

    And a White House Fact Sheet via the Office of National Drug Control Policy, states that “marijuana intoxication can cause distorted perceptions, impaired coordination, difficulty in thinking and problem solving, and problems with learning and memory. Studies have shown an association between chronic marijuana use and increased rates of anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and schizophrenia. Other research has shown marijuana smoke to contain carcinogens and to be an irritant to the lungs. In fact, marijuana smoke contains 50‐70 percent more carcinogenic hydrocarbons than does tobacco smoke.”

    Additionally, a March 2013 update from the National Institute for Drug Abuse underscores the developmental risks of regular teen marijuana use.


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