California Forum

Pot initiatives fail to adequately consider public health

Last July, the University of California Tobacco Related Disease Research Program held a meeting in which tobacco control researchers discussed their work with marijuana legalization advocates. At the end of the day, ACLU Executive Director Abdi Soltani observed, “It’s ironic that tobacco is completely legal, socially unacceptable, and its use is declining, while marijuana is illegal, socially normalized, and its use is rising.”

That insight has animated our thinking ever since. The ideal situation would be one in which marijuana, like tobacco, was legal, but its use was not socially accepted. Meeting this goal will be challenging.

Legalization done wrong will lead to a corporate marijuana industry that, like the tobacco industry, will use aggressive product design, marketing, and, most importantly, campaign contributions and lobbying to create a favorable legal environment to sell their products.

The only way to have a chance of treating marijuana like tobacco would be to do so from Day One. A politically protected, robust demand-reduction program modeled on California’s successful tobacco control program should be created concurrently with legalization.

Unfortunately, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act and the Marijuana Legalization Initiative Statute do not do this.

While giving a nod to public health, as our analysis describes, the initiatives’ details are consistently tilted to protect a retail marijuana industry. There are even industry representatives on the committee that will guide implementation of the proposed law.

Advocates for the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, including the California Medical Association’s Dr. Donald Lyman and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, have been circulating a critique of a draft of our report that we sent legalization advocates for comment three weeks before we finished the report (“One thing we don’t want is to make the mistakes of Colorado, Oregon, Washington”; (sacbee videos; Feb. 14). As planned, we carefully reviewed that critique and used it to revise the draft before we released the final report.

The initiative’s authors seem to be counting on the fact that few will plow through the complex but important details. Even the legislative analyst failed to consider the hundreds of millions of dollars in health care costs for treating the cancer, heart and other diseases an unrestrained marijuana market will create.

The right thing to do now would be to withdraw the initiatives and present a new one that truly prioritizes public health over profits. If the sponsors don’t do that, people who prioritize public health should reject these initiatives to send the message that they want marijuana legalization done right in 2018.

Rachel Barry is a researcher at the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco. Stanton A. Glantz is a professor of medicine and director of the center. The views expressed are those of the authors and not an official position of the UC.