In the state of Washington, I-502, an initiative to regulate and tax marijuana, qualified for the November 2012 ballot. It deserves a close look (New Approach Washington) by those who believe any policy reform must be in the best interest of children and families, public safety, and public health. I’ve been an addiction researcher for most of my professional life, focusing specifically on interventions tailored for adults and adolescents with marijuana use disorders. Because I-502 offers a powerful and accountable public health alternative to today’s far too unsuccessful criminalization approach, I chose to be an initiative sponsor.
I-502 has a long way to go to prevent a marijuana industry from targeting children and teenagers as customers like the alcohol and tobacco industries do. Your initiative is based on regulating marijuana like alcohol. Currently, twice as many young people in your state use alcohol as use marijuana. If the drug is legalized, marijuana use is likely to increase dramatically among the young under I-502 provisions that are far weaker than marketing constraints currently being brought against the tobacco industry, constraints that are having a major impact on reducing underage smoking. Without similar provisions, I-502, if passed, will result in more marijuana use, more marijuana-related health and safety problems, and more, not less, addiction.
It is inaccurate to state that Initiative 502′s marketing constraints are weaker than those in place for the tobacco industry. In fact, they are stronger:
- Marijuana sold only in standalone, marijuana-only stores that may not permit people under 21 on premises; no sales in grocery stores, convenience stores or gas stations
- Store signage restricted to one sign no larger than 1,600 square inches identifying the retail outlet by the licensee’s business or trade name; no window displays advertising marijuana products
- Additional time, place, manner advertising restrictions designed to minimize exposure to people under 21 to be adopted during one-year rule-making process before first licenses issue
- Labeling that includes medically and scientifically accurate information about the health and safety risks posed by marijuana use
Moreover, Initiative 502 dedicates a large portion of the new marijuana excise tax to evidence-based prevention programs, monitoring, and robust cost-benefit evaluation of the impacts of implementation of the measure so that informed modifications may be made as necessary.
Finally, it is worth noting that Washington’s state Department of Health has already published a fiscal note describing how it intends to use its portion of the dedicated funds to implement a comprehensive marijuana education and public health program based, specifically, on the lessons learned from its successful Tobacco Prevention and Control Program, and guidance and best practices from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It is clear that a minimum age of 21 for marijuana sales is better than a minimum age of 18 for tobacco sales. All of the other provisions you cite sound terrific—until one reads the initiative’s language rather than your description of that language.
Nowhere is this clearer than Section 28 (5) (b): “Ten percent to the department of health for the creation, implementation, operation, and management of a marijuana education and public health program that contains the following: (i) A marijuana use public health hotline that provides referrals to substance abuse treatment providers, utilizes evidence-based or research-based public health approaches to minimizing the harms associated with marijuana use, and does not solely advocate an abstinence-only approach. . .”
The universal goal of tobacco education campaigns rests solely on an “abstinence-only approach”: to persuade adolescents not to start smoking and to help smokers quit. That I-502 would dictate to the public health department an approach that defies evidence-based, research-based public health education programs is deeply troubling.
We are fascinated that both you and Professor Roffman ignore the question we raise in our response to him, above. If Washington is going to regulate marijuana like alcohol–the spin you’ve given I-502–Washington parents can expect to see marijuana use surge among 12-17 year olds and 18-25 year olds to their levels of alcohol use, which is double that among adolescents (13.94 percent alcohol vs. 7.73 percent marijuana) and more than triple that among young adults (60.77 percent alcohol vs. 17.08 marijuana).