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Researchers warn legal marijuana could be next Big Tobacco

5 things you need to know about the California marijuana proposition

California was the first state to allow medical marijuana. Now, two decades later, voters are expected to be asked whether to legalize recreational use of the drug. The legalization measure headed for the statewide November ballot is the product o
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California was the first state to allow medical marijuana. Now, two decades later, voters are expected to be asked whether to legalize recreational use of the drug. The legalization measure headed for the statewide November ballot is the product o

A ballot proposal legalizing recreational marijuana would likely launch a new profit-driven industry similar to Big Tobacco that could impede public health efforts, according to researchers at the University of California, San Francisco.

The 66-page analysis, released Tuesday, is the first in-depth look at the state’s main effort to legalize recreational marijuana this year.

Researchers said they began with the premise that legalizing marijuana makes sense because its prohibition has put too many people behind bars and cost taxpayers too much money. But they concluded the two potential initiatives they examined would replace a crime problem with a public health issue.

The authors, Rachel Barry and Stanton Glantz, of the UCSF Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education and Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy, said the measure most likely to qualify for the ballot establishes a regulatory system similar to the one used for alcohol. They said it would have been better to pattern the guidelines after the state’s Tobacco Control Program, which they credited with reducing the health effects and costs related to tobacco.

“Evidence from tobacco and alcohol control demonstrates that without a strong public health framework, a wealthy and politically powerful marijuana industry will develop and use its political clout to manipulate regulatory frameworks and thwart public health efforts to reduce use and profits,” the report states.

In an interview, Glantz said treating marijuana like cigarettes could drive down its popularity.

“The goal (should be) to legalize it so that nobody gets thrown in jail, but create a legal product that nobody wants,” he said.

He worries that a new marijuana industry would spend large sums of money to curry favor with lawmakers.

“I think a corporate takeover of the market ... is very, very hard to stop,” he said, adding, “They are already a potent lobbyist in California.”

A spokesman for the legalization campaign noted the report was written by experts on tobacco, not marijuana, and said it makes broad assumptions unsupported by past research into the issue. The measure is drafted in a way that takes public health into account, Jason Kinney said.

“This report inexplicably chooses to ignore the extensive public health protections and mandate included in our measure – as well as the child safeguards, the small-business and anti-monopoly provisions and the unprecedented investments in youth prevention, education and treatment,” Kinney said.

The leading measure seeks to legitimize possession of 1 ounce of marijuana and cultivation of six marijuana plants for adults 21 and over. One of the proponents, Donald Lyman, a retired physician, helped write the California Medical Association’s 2011 policy calling for the legalization of marijuana.

The doctors’ lobby formally endorsed the main legalization measure on Monday, characterizing it as a “comprehensive and thoughtfully constructed measure.” For years, some doctors have complained they have become gatekeepers for healthy people seeking weed recommendations via a flawed medical marijuana system.

Lyman, a former state public health official, said the notion that marijuana must be regulated exactly like tobacco “represents an awkward minority opinion not widely shared within the public health community.”

Lyman said it is widely accepted in the scientific community that marijuana has medical benefits, something that isn’t true of tobacco.

Legalization supporters had already begun pushing back against claims they aren’t doing enough to protect against potential adverse public health risks.

Their measure requires independent testing of commercial marijuana with licensing and supervision handled by the Department of Public Health. Packaging and labels cannot be “attractive” to children, the measure states, and must have warnings about possible harm to women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Among the proposal’s financial supporters is billionaire venture capitalist Sean Parker, the former president of Facebook who co-founded the file-sharing service Napster. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, another well-known backer, preceded the campaign by forming a panel of experts that recommended the best approaches to legalization in a blue-ribbon report. The commission urged caution, stating marijuana “should not be California’s next Gold Rush.”

The measure includes anti-monopoly language and prohibits large-scale licenses in the first five years.

Report author Barry, who also served on Newsom’s panel, said five years is not enough time.

“I am thinking more in 20 years what the industry will evolve into, not five years,” Barry said. “And that’s something we should be doing with the regulations.”

She said the initiative proponents did not fully adhere to the outside recommendations. Specifically, Barry said, she previously stressed the need for a marijuana prevention-and-control program aimed at the general population. She wants continuous funding earmarked for research into marijuana-related diseases.

Barry said the marijuana advisory board set up by the measure would be dominated by people with an economic stake in the industry, rather than those with public health interests. She objects to a provision giving local governments the authority to permit indoor use in licensed marijuana facilities.

However, Barry did credit the authors for largely prohibiting marijuana in smoke-free environments. Cities and counties would be free to ban recreational marijuana businesses in their jurisdictions with local voter approval.

Newsom and other leaders of the commission said in a prepared statement that while a ballot measure needs to provide a strong framework for regulation, “it must also preserve some flexibility in order to evolve those regulations over time.”

Abdi Soltani, executive director of the ACLU of Northern California and a member of the Newsom commission’s steering committee, said he agrees with some of the concerns raised in the report but ultimately believes the initiative protects the public.

“My middle school child will not walk into a corner store where tobacco and alcohol are marketed and see marijuana for sale,” Soltani said.

Christopher Cadelago: 916-326-5538, @ccadelago

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