Marijuana use study sought by backers, foes of legalization

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BOSTON – At odds over the prudence of legalizing retail sales of marijuana in Massachusetts, people on both sides of a proposed ballot question to do just that agree with the idea of measuring current pot use.

“What we’ve seen happen in other states is that they don’t have existing baseline data on recreational marijuana use and it becomes very difficult for both sides to have honest conversations about the effects and impacts” of legalization, said state Rep. Hannah Kane, a Shrewsbury Republican who opposes the proposed ballot measure.

“We’re all for a baseline study,” Jim Borghesani, the chief spokesman for the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, told the News Service. Clarifying that he opposes delaying a decision on legalization before a study, he said, “I think that as states move forward with regulating marijuana it will help to gather facts.”

Marijuana remains an illegal drug under federal law, although retail sales to adults have been legalized in several states in recent years. Borghesani’s group is pushing to add a question similar to those passed in Colorado and Washington toward the Massachusetts ballot in November that would legalize marijuana use and possession for people ages 21 and up starting in December, followed by legalized retail sales. In 2008, Bay State voters decriminalized possession of up to an ounce of pot and in 2012 voters approved use of the drug for therapeutic purposes. Several dispensaries have opened in the state since then.

As lawmakers deal with tight finances, there are only months remaining before a potential statewide vote on the issue, leaving a shrinking window to gather data.

During its budget debate last month, the House of Representatives rejected an amendment sponsored by Kane to devote $1.25 million for a use study by the University of Massachusetts.

Under Kane’s amendment, UMass would have examined “the existing occurrences of marijuana use,” including “the existing programs available that prevent and address the harmful consequences of marijuana use in schools and the community; an analysis of issues around the effects of marijuana use on public safety of citizens; the economic and fiscal issues around marijuana use.”

Senate leaders plan to unveil their version of the fiscal 2017 budget on Tuesday with floor debate over amendments scheduled for next week.

David Buchanan, chair of the Department of Health Promotion & Policy at UMass, told the News Service there is “a tremendous amount of data out there” on the topic, but it has “pretty serious limitations,” including survey questions that lump marijuana in with other drugs.

Buchanan, who opposes legalization, told the News Service he would hope to focus on several areas, including driving under the influence of the drug. Some data in that area could come from requesting confidential blood samples from people in hospital emergency departments, Buchanan said.

Buchanan said other study areas would be how marijuana use corresponds with the use of other drugs and alcohol, daily pot use, exposure to media around the subject, sources of the drug, and means of consumption – including e-cigarettes and a process known as “dabbing.”

The professor is “deeply concerned” about the ballot question and finds it “stunning” that policy around the nation is shifting to a more permissive approach to marijuana “with very little good scientific data,” he told the News Service.

One hindrance to the study of marijuana is its “Schedule One” classification, which the Drug Enforcement Administration defines as containing “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

Last month the DEA reportedly announced it would decide within the first half of the year whether to reclassify marijuana.

Brian Smith, a spokesman for the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board, said there is a “dearth of good research,” and the initiative that legalized marijuana in the Pacific Northwest state also set up long-term studies on the impact.

“You want to know the impact before and the impact later,” Smith told the News Service. He said, “It’s just hard to measure something that’s been illegal.”

Sen. Jason Lewis, a Winchester Democrat who heads up a special Senate committee on marijuana and opposes legalization, said, “We want to also make sure we’re taking steps so that if the ballot question were successful, that Massachusetts is in the best possible position to be able to respond and to implement it.”

Grant funding may be available for the study, he said.

The state needs to determine means of testing drivers for marijuana intoxication “that can stand up in court,” Lewis said, including looking at a form of mandatory blood test. He said there should be a ban on consuming marijuana while driving.

The House rejected a proposed budget amendment filed by Norfolk Republican Rep. Shawn Dooley that would have created penalties similar to the “open container” law, but for marijuana.

Written by Andy Metzger