Research and data presented by two of Colorado's leading cannabis experts Friday provided workshop attendees a glimpse of the impacts of recreational cannabis.
Hosted by the Santa Barbara County Department of Public Health, the workshop brought health care and mental health providers, educators and elected officials together for a conversation regarding public health concerns related to the state's impending sale of recreational cannabis.
"We wanted to make sure that, in the conversation around recreational cannabis, our community members, service providers and decision makers get solid data from legitimate and well-vetted national experts," said Van Do-Reynoso, director of the county's Public Health Department. "We wanted to build our community's capacity to be informed and grounded."
Passage of Proposition 64 during the 2016 general election immediately legalized recreational use and personal cultivation of cannabis, and set a firm date (Jan. 1, 2018) for recreational sale and taxation. As state and municipal governments anxiously work to sort out licensing, zoning and tax issues ahead of Jan. 1, Public Health officials say their focus is on educating the public about recreational cannabis and its other derivative products.
"Whether they legalize pot shops on every corner or whether they ban them all together, our work is the same," said Charity Dean, health officer for Public Health. "People are already using [cannabis] -- we're going to be playing catch-up no matter what we do. "
Medical cannabis was first approved by California voters more than 20 years ago. Despite the state's long history with the product, Public Health officials say accurate data regarding community impact is hard to come by.
Larry Wolk, executive director and chief medical officer of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, has been at the forefront of cannabis research and data collection since 2012, when Colorado became one of the first states in the U.S. to legalize recreational cannabis. Since joining the Department of Public Health and Environment in late 2013, Wolk has spearheaded ambitious research projects and helped develop cannabis education campaigns targeted at Colorado citizens and out-of-state tourists.
Data presented by Wolk indicates that cannabis usage and consumption rates did not see a notable increase following legalization. Contrary to what both Do-Reynoso and Dean thought, first-time usage and regular usage by Colorado youth, though higher than national average, did not notably increase following legalization.
"I was reassured to see the data from Colorado showed a high rate of use before legalization, and that the rate of use didn't increase that much after legalization," Dean said, adding that it would not surprise her to discover that California has roughly the same rate of use as Colorado.
Since legalization, marijuana related offenses have decreased in K-12 schools across Colorado; only college-related offenses have risen, though marginally so. Dropout rates are similarly unaffected, and the overall number of suspensions or expulsions (including cannabis-related offenses) have declined as well. Alcohol, according to Wolk's data, remains by far the most common and impactful intoxicant.
"Colorado has at least three years on us," Do-Reynoso said. "I'm excited to really capitalize on their data and experiences by taking the best of what they have and implementing it in Santa Barbara."
Dean cautioned that many of the trends and statistics he presented were only collected during a two-year period, a fact Wolk acknowledged several times during his presentation. While she welcomes the availability of any data, Dean is hesitant to get too comfortable.
"I think there is much more to be revealed," she said. "If we had looked at smoking data for cigarettes after only two years, we wouldn't have learned it caused cancer or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). From a public health perspective, I'm not going to breathe a sigh of relief for 30 years."