Retail Marijuana: A Public Health Expert's Concerns

Jun 2, 2017

Products from Silver State Cannabis.
Credit Michelle Matus

John Packham is the Director of Health Policy Research at the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine. 

He’s also a member of the state’s Consumer Safety, Education and Health Working Group advising Governor Brian Sandoval’s Task Force for the Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana.

Since you’re on a group advising the governor’s task force, what are some public health concerns being discussed?

There’s a variety of opinions on the degree to which recreational or legal recreational marijuana poses a public health threat. My view is that a legal well-regulated industry is much lesser of a threat than one that remains illegal and unregulated. I think it’s an opportunity for public health to regulate a product that is, frankly, widely consumed here in Nevada and the rest of the United States.

In states that have already legalized recreational marijuana, what have been the main public health concerns there?

I think that they’re common across states such as Oregon, Washington, Colorado and now Nevada that have approved recreational sales. Limiting youth access, that’s one of the biggies that we’re concerned about is something that is legal and used by adults will be attractive and of interest to those underage. We’ve seen that with tobacco, alcohol and other legal substances enjoyed by adults.

What do you think that Nevada can do to help minimize the potential public health impact to young people?

Well, one of the things that the Consumer Safety, Education and Health Working Group put together was a recommendation dealing with education and outreach that is necessary. None of this exists right now in the state Nevada. And our thinking and the public health rationale for that is to counter industry advertising and marketing. The goal of marketing is to increase demand and consumption for your product. And attentive not only to youth access, but also adult addiction and other problems that will come with this great social experiment that we’re about to undertake.

John Packham is the Director of Health Policy Research at the University of Nevada, Reno.

And as a public health expert, what are your biggest concerns about the legalization of recreational marijuana in Nevada? And what can be done to maximize public safety?

At the risk of sounding self-serving, we are very concerned about the fact that we simply in this state do not have baseline data on adult use, youth use, treatment costs, and so forth, that provide a baseline thinking of what could be the impact of recreational sales in our state. How we would track that, how we would address public health and safety based on that. One of the casualties in the war or drugs is our lack of knowledge on what the public health aspects of marijuana use are, how medical marijuana laws and their rollout across a number of states have affected addiction, and youth use, and so forth. And I think it’s just imperative at this point that the Department of Taxation considers how are we going to monitor, track and assess the impact of this new change in law. 

Because marijuana is a Schedule 1 drug and is federally illegal, the federal government doesn’t sponsor research at institutions that would normally carryout this type of research. How does that make it challenging for public health officials to inform their work?

From a researcher’s point of view, it’s a little maddening because on one hand, there are claims made by both proponents and opponents of legal marijuana on health impacts, harms, threats to society and so forth. But frankly, the body of research on those types of impacts is somewhat thin. What we have in Nevada is an opportunity to address that, but I would caution, there is no dedicated funding or revenue for that type of research. It’s absolutely essential that we begin to think about things like surveillance, how recreational sales will impact healthcare treatment costs, and substance abuse programs and so forth.