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Commentary: Saying "When" not "If": Prevention of marijuana harms

In 2010, Proposition 19 was making headlines and prompted me to start a series of presentations on the implications marijuana legalization had on campus prevention efforts.  At the time, the thought of widespread legalization still seemed remote to most in my audiences.  Times have changed.  In only four years, the number of states with medical use has risen by 50% and two states have legalized non-medical use. 

The Federal government policy has changed as well.  In 2010, Attorney General Harold Holder sent a very specific threat to legalization supporters in California stating that their efforts would violate federal law.  In 2012, not only did Holder not send a similar letter to Colorado and Washington, his office has instead now released “guidance” that the Federal government would watch, but not interfere with their commercial regulation of marijuana.  And today we learn that he is working to smooth the way for the banking industry to participate in the marijuana marketplace.

Other changes may happen just as quickly.  Being considered in Congress are laws that would move marijuana regulation out of the Federal schedule system and into state law.  This effort is receiving bipartisan support.

It is now reasonable to predict that somewhere within the next 1-3 years, full legalization will occur at both the Federal and perhaps many or most states. Even a cursory look at the history of alcohol prohibition repeal makes clear a change like this can sweep across the country very fast.

College campuses must think through their relationship with marijuana.  Most, if not all campuses in states with legalization (medical or otherwise) have relied on the Federal Drug Free Schools and Community Act to continue their prohibition of any marijuana use on their campuses.  But if the Federal government de-schedules marijuana, the DFSCA will not apply any more; issues like medical-use accommodation will come to the fore. 

I’ve heard some campus folks say they’d rely on their campus smoke-free policies to continue their marijuana prohibition.  But there are implications for that as well.  For instance, eatable and drinkable forms of THC consumption are becoming much more prevalent and will likely increase even more rapidly in a commercialized environment.  Those pose unique and perhaps even more serious risks than smoked/vaporized forms. 

Campuses need to start the discussions now.  Explicit harms should be identified that are worthy of preventing.  For instance, many believe we are likely to see a substantial increase in numbers of frequent/heavy consumers, with the concomitant issues of Cannabis Use Disorders.  Given the recent research that continues to point to concerns about heavy use on adolescent brain development, campuses may rightly wish to limit underage and heavy use.  Impaired driving is also likely to result in direct harm to both marijuana consumers and the general public.  Many of those issues will only be solved through campus/community partnerships to assure regulation and enforcement are sufficient.

So this means...Strategies to accomplish prevention of these harms are only starting to emerge.  What is heartening is that in contrast to the uphill efforts to speak about this issue 4 years ago, we are seeing a much more broadly engaged prevention community. At the NASPA AOD conference just completed, there were no fewer than 5 presentations specifically addressing marijuana, and many more that tangentially included it. We may not be able to stop the change, but we can be positioned to shape some policies and prepare for the easily predicted consequences that will come when it happens.  However, we can do our work only if we plan strategically and that may only happen if we are willing to say "when" instead of "if"; and I believe it's time to do just that.  Watch for a series of articles that I'll put on this site that highlight promising approaches to prevention of marijuana harms within a legalized context.