Retail Cannabis and Research: A Joint Venture

By Lindsey Greto and Meghan King, Public Health marijuana program

Now that we’ve covered the basics on cannabis and Washington’s cannabis laws, we’re turning our attention to King County’s Health and Human Services priorities regarding marijuana legalization. Our next posts will give an overview of the statement, then explore examples of current local efforts within the priorities.

First up is the statement’s priority to “broaden the evidence base.” There isn’t a lot of research on cannabis, and what is available typically involves small samples or includes confounding criteria. Plus, studies are frequently based on less potent cannabis than many of the retail products currently available. Expanding what is known about cannabis—its effects, uses, social implications, and more—is very important, as it informs policy work and the creation of prevention and intervention programs.

One organization in King County working to broaden the evidence base is the University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute (ADAI). ADAI is a multidisciplinary research center that conducts, supports, and disseminates research on substance abuse, including cannabis use.

Dr. Beatriz Carlini, Ph.D., MPH

We sat down with Dr. Beatriz Carlini, a Senior Research Scientist at ADAI, to get her take on why broadening the evidence base on cannabis is important and how ADAI contributes.

How is cannabis research related to cannabis legalization in the state of Washington?

I-502 is widely known as Washington’s voter-approved initiative to legalize the production, processing, and retail sale of cannabis for use by adults ages 21 and older. Another important aspect of I-502 is its commitment to protect the public’s health by leveraging a portion of cannabis excise taxes to several programs, including a Marijuana Research Fund to increase knowledge about cannabis. The initiative directed 1% of excise taxes on retail cannabis to be shared by the University of Washington and Washington State University for cannabis-related research. This exact structure did not come to fruition, however; currently, our state universities get a very small portion of what was originally the intent of the voters. ADAI is the University of Washington’s current recipient of these funds.

LearnAboutMarijuanaWA.orgWhat does ADAI do with I-502 funding?

ADAI provides most of its I-502 funding as $10,000 – $30,000 grants to University of Washington researchers. Since 2015, 13 research projects have focused on studying the short- and long-term effects of cannabis, including the effect of legalization on youth, the role of social media on youth cannabis use, and the ways consumers perceive the function of cannabis in their lives.

The remaining I-502 funding goes to hosting a biennial symposium on ADAI’s funded projects, and to disseminating research findings through ADAI’s Learn about Marijuana website. You can watch videos from the 2018 symposium here.

Why is I-502 funding advantageous?

Federal funding for research can be a lengthy process—it oftentimes takes 3 to 4 years to propose a research question, and then the research itself may be conducted over several years. This is ideal for answering big questions on topics that remain fairly static, like how the brain is affected by cannabis, or potential treatments for cannabis use—both topics that require substantial amounts of money and time.

These long timelines, however, aren’t as feasible for cannabis topics that rapidly evolve or need local applicability. A prime example is advertising, a field with quickly changing trends: if ADAI were to wait multiple years to release results on cannabis advertising, findings may no longer be relevant. So, I-502 enables ADAI to provide fast funding, a local focus, and quick results to answer the pressing questions that are needed for policy making and community-based interventions. Plus, it’s ADAI’s responsibility to uphold the opportunity Washington voters provided in approving I-502 to answer these urgent questions.

What are examples of pressing cannabis questions that ADAI hopes to address?

The agricultural business of cannabis created a new workforce in Washington: what are the pros and cons of this new industry? Are workers protected from exposures (like UV rays, contaminants, herbicides, etc.) that could have negative implications on their health? Because cannabis producing and processing is not federally regulated, these questions need local, Washington state answers.

A second example is cannabis safety: how can parents who use cannabis be better educated on safety measures to protect their kids (like not leaving cannabis products unattended, locking up their products, etc.)? Answers to this urgent question could help prevent accidental harm and youth cannabis use.

Within current work, ADAI recently completed a Washington state analysis of cannabis advertising. Results from the study will be available next year and will be important for informing prevention messages for youth.

Keep up to date and learn more about ADAI’s activities and research on their website.

Check out Learn about Marijuana for science-based information and resources on cannabis.

Stay tuned for the next post in our series: local efforts for youth cannabis prevention!

Originally published on Nov. 26, 2018.