Commentary: More discussion needed on marijuana policy

By Neal Shifman

Whether you love it or hate it, it’s a fact that 29 states so far have some form of marijuana decriminalization or legalization, with more considering the possibility.

People have strong opinions about the legalization of marijuana, but how often are those opinions based on science and an understanding of evolving best practices? It’s high time we have a national conversation that is rational, science-based and open-minded, around the many public health implications.

Substance-use disorders, youth prevention, drugged driving, health effects, pesticides — the list is long, and these questions make it a complex process for states working to translate policy and legislation into reasonable regulation.

To date, the marijuana industry has been dominated by commercial interests, and any national conference or gathering has been overshadowed by these market drivers. Is this how we want public policy to be determined? On the fly and pressured by interests more concerned about profit than about public health and safety? Or do we want to invest the time and energy into research, thoughtful policy-making and application of best practices as they evolve?

We think the latter, which is why we’ve organized the National Cannabis Summit, to be held August 28-30 in Denver, as the first forum for states and stakeholders to gather and have a neutral, objective and open conversation about the hard questions.

The speakers include top experts on U.S. drug policy, officials from states in more advanced stages of implementing medical and recreational marijuana, and federal representation with a research focus. They bring knowledge of public health and safety, public policy, research, governance and science. The topics focus on practical approaches to sorting through the challenges raised.

The hosting organizations — Advocates for Human Potential, Inc., National Council for Behavioral Health and Addiction Technology Transfer Center Network — have no financial interest in the event and have ensured there will be no ties to industry. There is a fee to defray expenses because we don’t have that industry support. These organizations have donated the time to create this event because we think it is critical we establish a thoughtful national dialogue.

This is a platform for the policy-makers, state officials, public health and medical professionals: the stakeholders who have to implement new legislation — to listen, share experience, gain knowledge from others who have gone before, and bring back practical ideas to make it work.

Let’s stop pushing the mythology of marijuana and start focusing on research and science. Let’s stop making assumptions, jumping to conclusions and firing off opinions not based in fact. For example, some people are afraid that marijuana will be a gateway drug that could make the opioid crisis worse. But two recent studies show that medical marijuana is associated with lower opioid overdose mortality rates.

Yet we can’t assume these studies mean medical marijuana will necessarily help with the opioid crisis; both studies also caution that it is still premature to assume a causal relationship. What’s clear is that more research is needed and is key to making good policy decisions. So while we’re at it, let’s encourage the federal government to remove marijuana as a Schedule I drug, the most restrictive category reserved for drugs with no medicinal value and high potential for abuse. This will make it easier for researchers to conduct studies and add to the body of knowledge that informs good public policy.

If you’re tired of the endless debates fueled by high emotion, you’re invited to contribute to a conversation grounded in science, best practices and real world experience at the National Cannabis Summit. Officials from states with advanced cannabis programs will share lessons learned. Researchers and scientists will share the latest knowledge. And you’ll walk away with better information and more confidence upon which to build policy and practice and to address the issues in your state.

Neal Shifman is president and CEO of Advocates for Human Potential. a health advocacy organization.

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