California: Big Marijuana, Public Health, and the AUMA. Oh My.

A recently released report analyzed the public health implications of two of California’s proposed initiatives to legalize recreational cannabis in 2016, focusing on the “Control, Regulate and Tax Adult Use of Marijuana Act” (more commonly known as the “AUMA” initiative) and criticizing the initiative for not effectively addressing public health concerns and for creating the opportunity for a political, profit-driven industry like “Big Marijuana” to take over.

Hey everyone, with legalization in California will come Big Canna and other really really terrible things.
Hey everyone, with legalization in California will come Big Marijuana and other really really terrible things.

Public Health. Though the report concludes that the illegality of most marijuana use in California has led to negative social harms like crime and the unequal imprisonment of people of color, it also claims legalization of recreational marijuana will result in costs to public health similar to those which result from legal tobacco use.

For examples of “public health problems associated with marijuana use” the report mentions youth initiation, indoor use, social normalization, and health disparities. Some suggestions from the report to combat these problems include:

  • The California Department of Public Health should be in charge of the entire marijuana system and not just licensing of manufacturing facilities and testing laboratories, as designated under the AUMA.
  • The marijuana advisory committee under the AUMA should be composed of only independent public health experts instead of including marijuana industry representatives.
  • The initial five-year period during which large-scale cultivators cannot enter the market under the AUMA is not long enough to prevent competition from “Big Marijuana,” though the report does not suggest an appropriate period of time.
  • Marijuana businesses should be located at least 1,000 feet from schools instead of 600 feet, as required under the AUMA, and should also not be located within 1,000 feet of any area where underage people may congregate, such as libraries, malls, movie theaters, churches, and hospitals.
  • Marijuana businesses should not be allowed to advertise online, offer coupons or use promotional items such as hats or t-shirts.

The report fails to mention any positive health benefits associated with marijuana use by medical patients, instead stating there is a lack of knowledge and evidence that could perhaps be developed as more states legalize recreational use. The goal, the report argues, should be to denormalize marijuana use among the general public through a system like the California Tobacco Control Program, which it claims has successfully countered the lobbying and marketing tactics of the tobacco industry and led to a decrease in the social acceptance and use of tobacco today. Thus, instead of using marijuana taxes to fund youth-centered substance abuse programs, as provided under the AUMA, it instead suggest a broad anti-marijuana campaign targeting the general population, including adults over the age of 21.

Big Marijuana. In making its argument that a new regulatory system for recreational cannabis in California should be centrally focused on public health and modeled after the state’s program for regulating tobacco, the report also touches on a common concern that legalization will lead to a politically-powerful and profit-driven marijuana industry similar to that of Big Tobacco, which has not surprisingly been dubbed by many as “Big Marijuana.”

This isn’t the first time a concern has been raised about the birth of Big Marijuana in California. Even without legal recreational marijuana, California still has the largest marijuana market in the United States, and future sales from recreational marijuana are projected to grow by 1,150% over the next four years. Many worry that as the chance for profits grows, Big Marijuana will step in and replace the small family farms and mom and pop dispensaries that have long existed in the California cannabis community. A secondary fear not addressed in the report is that Big Tobacco itself will jump into a newly legalized recreational marijuana market.

Though the suggestions offered by the report may be a stretch, it cannot be denied that concerns about public health and Big Marijuana are real and growing as we get closer to full legalization in 2016. For those thinking about starting a recreational cannabis business in California, these will be issues to watch as they will likely affect the results of any vote on initiatives later this year.