Industry-Friendly Cannabis Regulations in California Are Failing to Take Public Health Risks Seriously, Researchers Argue
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A new viewpoint paper published by research scientists and public health experts in California warns that current cannabis regulations are not doing enough to protect public health.
Because of its geographic, economic, and cultural diversity, California has become an important bellwether in terms of American cannabis regulations. But the state’s current approach of implementing “industry-friendly” regulations at the expense of strict public health policies now risks setting a bad example, the experts caution.
Published in the journal JAMA Health Forum, the viewpoint argues that the current regulations on matters such as high-THC products and warning labels are insufficient. It also includes several examples of alternative public health measures that are currently being considered at the county- and state-level which the experts believe would be more effective.
Concern over high-potency THC products
This month, the California State Fair will play host to the first-ever CA State Fair Cannabis Awards. The inclusion of cannabis at this major agricultural event has largely been welcomed by those in the space as an important step forward for the local cannabis industry.
“The State Fair here in California has such a long-standing history, and it’s such a part of the larger culture of California, it represents so much to the community here. But it’s now making space for cannabis to be involved.” Jeff Gray, CEO of SC Labs, previously told Analytical Cannabis. SC Labs is the official laboratory partner of the CA State Fair.
“We hope it’s a model for other states to start welcoming the cannabis farming community into the broader agricultural community,” he said.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with the concept of cannabis awards, the authors of the viewpoint say that the plan to award prizes at this event for high-THC content is “emblematic of the misalignment of state priorities with public health objectives”.
High-THC products have been associated with increased risk of memory impairment, psychosis, and the development of a cannabis use disorder. An advisory issued by the US Surgeon General in 2019 also recommended that adolescents and pregnant people avoid using cannabis, specifically noting the risks that are associated with high-potency THC products.
“Industry-friendly” regulations undermine public health protections
As examples of this misalignment of priorities, the experts point out that although California state law does require that warnings are printed on package labels discouraging cannabis use during pregnancy and adolescence, these warnings are normally printed in size six-point font. Additionally, these warnings are allowed to be printed on the rear of packaging, or in other less-visible spots, potentially impacting the effectiveness of these warnings. Compared to the prominent (and often visually arresting) warning labels that are required for tobacco products, cannabis warning labels may not be doing enough to alert consumers of potential health risks.
“Despite the evidence of negative effects, particularly on vulnerable populations, the balance of cannabis regulation in California, as well as most states in the US, favors industry-friendly regulations rather than true public health protections beyond those gains achieved by eliminating prohibition,” the viewpoint authors stated.
Recent research has found that the vast majority – more than 96% – of dispensaries in California comply with the state requirement to check ID for age verification at the point of purchase. However, the same research also found that nearly 70% of dispensaries did not display signs communicating the minimum age of purchase for cannabis, which is also a requirement in California.
Additionally, the viewpoint authors highlight a further study which found that 85% of randomly sampled retailers in the state did not carry out proof-of-age checks before entering the establishment. Inside these dispensaries, there was often positive messaging and advertisements that could be appealing to the underage individuals entering the premises.
The viewpoint authors were also critical of California’s current batch THC limits for commercially available adult-use products.
“Although California limits the amount of the psychoactive ingredient in a package of concentrates or oils, the limits are so high that a standard vaping cartridge containing 80 percent THC has the equivalent of 160 5-mg doses of THC,” they wrote. “This would be similar to selling beer in standard packages equivalent to a keg.”
Recommendations for more robust oversight
Given the relative youth of the cannabis sector compared to other commercial industries, it is understandable that regulatory bodies across the world are still settling on best practices for addressing cannabis. But given the lessons that have been learned from tobacco and alcohol regulation, the viewpoint authors argue that the current safeguards that are in place for cannabis are too weak.
Some areas are making good progress in this regard. The viewpoint authors specifically highlight several developments, such as the tiered tax brackets corresponding to THC content in New York State, as an example of good public health policy. Potency limits, as have been imposed in Quebec and Connecticut, are also a good step forward.
California itself is also beginning to make changes. The authors note that a proposal for large, front-of-package health warnings and health warnings on cannabis advertisements is currently under consideration at the state-level. California’s Contra Costa County has also pioneered a ban on flavored smokable cannabis products, equivalent to its ban on flavored tobacco products, as a means to discourage youth cannabis use.
“As a nation, we have a collective responsibility to the next generation. It is time to stop harming children by allowing industry to invent increasingly potent and youth-appealing products and end stigmatizing pregnant individuals who use a product sold by an industry that profits from misleading claims of safety,” the experts concluded.
By creating and implementing legislation that puts public health first, the authors believe that states can help to protect their vulnerable populations while also steering adult recreational users toward safer, more moderate cannabis use practices.