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Jan. 15, 2021

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What needs to change to maximize marijuana’s benefits to Washington residents?

By , Columbian Business Reporter
Published:
2 Photos
Recreational marijuana is off to a strong start financially in Washington, though it may be early yet to gauge some of its long-term effects.
Recreational marijuana is off to a strong start financially in Washington, though it may be early yet to gauge some of its long-term effects. (OPB files) Photo Gallery

One billion dollars.

If current trends keep up, that will be the value of marijuana retail and producer/processor sales in Washington state on a yearly basis. With few exceptions, state marijuana sales have risen every month since the first recreational stores opened two years ago, bringing millions in state taxes and thousands of jobs.

That’s the good news.

“The picture thus far is a curate’s egg — good in parts,” writes University of Washington professor emeritus Roger Roffman. “No policy change of this magnitude will go precisely according to plan.”

So what still needs fixing?

The Washington State Institute for Public Policy won’t release its first Legislature-mandated report until September 2017, since it wrote last year that “not enough time has passed … to draw any cause-and-effect conclusions.”

Next year’s study will look at substance use, health, traffic safety, criminal justice, education and workplace safety and productivity. Until then: “Effects of the law will not be detectable until several years after implementation, and it may take longer for any effects to stabilize.”

Roffman, a co-sponsor of recreational marijuana legalization, agreed with that sentiment.

“Some impacts, for example, a possible increased demand for cannabis dependence treatment, may not become evident for five or 10 years,” he wrote in January’s Society for the Study of Addiction journal.

Still, experts say a few immediate effects are becoming clear as the initial high of legalization wears off.

At the workplace

Marijuana is legal, but it’s also legal to fire an employee or deny an applicant employment if he or she tests positive for THC, the primary psychoactive substance in the drug.

That’s especially true for federal contractors and employers that receive federal grants, though the Drug Free Workplace Act doesn’t require mandatory drug tests.

“Employers have a duty under the Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1970 to ‘maintain conditions or adopt practices reasonably necessary and appropriate to protect workers on the job,’ ” writes Francesca Liquori with the National Association of Attorneys General. “While employers strive for a productive and safe workplace, they must also ensure that they do not violate the rights of their employees in the process.”

Getting fired for using medical marijuana was put to the test at the Washington Supreme Court in 2011, where justices agreed that an employer is within his or her right to terminate an employee who fails a drug test, despite the state’s legality of the drug or when its use occurred. The Oregon and Colorado high courts have issued similar rulings based on laws in those states and the continued federal prohibition on marijuana.

“Until state and federal laws coincide, legal challenges and uncertainty in the workplace will continue,” reads a report in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine last year.

On the highway

Studies say it’s important to note that it’s difficult to directly link marijuana use and increased highway fatalities; state data does show a recent jump in highway fatalities where the driver had THC in his or her blood, either alone or with other substances.

In 2008, 136 drivers with marijuana in their system were involved in a fatal crash in Washington, according to state data. That number rose to 183 in 2015.

But blood levels of THC aren’t always consistent with actual or identifiable intoxication. And in more cases than not, fatal crashes involving THC involved a combination of alcohol or other drugs.

“We’ve had tons of research on alcohol for decades, to the point we can create charts where when you’re at a .05 (blood alcohol content), these are the signs you exhibit,” said Shelly Baldwin with the Washington Traffic Safety Commission. “Marijuana has not been studied like that, so we don’t have tons of research to show us if there is even a link between levels of THC and its effects.”

Because alcohol and cannabis are absorbed into the body differently — and heavy users will have a background level of THC in their body despite not having recently imbibed — Baldwin said it’s hard to treat like alcohol when testing.

“I know we all want to say this particular level equals this particular thing,” Baldwin said. “We know through many studies that marijuana seems to double your risk of being in a crash, but that’s the best we’ve got right now.”

What Baldwin said was most prevalent since marijuana became legal was drivers getting into accidents under the influence of multiple substances at once.

“And perhaps we’re unaware of the effects of mixing,” she said.

In the law books

Marijuana is still classified as a Schedule I drug under federal law, putting it in the same category as heroin and ecstasy. The Controlled Substances Act calls pot more dangerous than meth and prescription opioids, which are linked to an increasing number of deaths around the country.

That’s despite many medical experts calling marijuana less dangerous than alcohol or tobacco.

Still, the law says the same thing about pot it has since 1970: “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

The Drug Enforcement Agency has signaled it may change the drug’s classification this year, possibly paving the way to decriminalization and further study. But for now that decision is on hold, reports Denver’s Westword publication.

One of the architects of Washington’s recreational marijuana law, Alison Holcomb, said a change in federal law is the last step to smooth out an industry that has “been going fairly well.”

“At this point it’s up to the federal government to make a decision,” said Holcomb, with the American Civil Liberties Union.

She said federal restrictions on banking keep many retailers cash-only; tax law means retailers are unable to write off business expenses in federal tax returns. Federal law also prevents growers from accessing Department of Agriculture benefits other farmers can take advantage of.

Of course, it also puts users, growers and sellers at risk of prosecution in federal court. For now, the Obama administration is treating marijuana cases as a “low priority” in states that have relaxed their cannabis laws. Would a Trump or Clinton administration do the same?

The Marijuana Policy Project gave Clinton a B+ and Trump a C+ on their stances on marijuana; what will actually happen is anyone’s guess.

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