While acknowledging the impossibility of projecting long-term impacts of a Washington state commercialization of recreational marijuana that has been in place for less than two years, a new report suggests that state officials are finding it difficult to protect citizens, particularly some of the state’s youngest, from harmful consequences of legalization.

“The industry is growing at a rate faster than regulations can be implemented,” states the report from the Northwest High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. “Accountability and responsibility is currently in the hands of the marijuana marketplace with an obligation to self-regulate in order to avoid state — or federal — intervention.”

At the same time, the presence of a commercial market in which marijuana is available in edible products ranging from scones to fudge to olive oil appears to be reinforcing a trend toward less perceived risk from marijuana use — a pattern that actually had begun emerging even before Washington state voters approved legalization on the 2012 statewide ballot. The Washington State Marijuana Impact Report states that perception of harm among students at all middle and high school grade levels has been declining since 2008, and that this is the case regardless of whether the students use marijuana themselves.

This has been one of the most noticeable trends to a leading treatment executive in the state. Scott Munson, executive director of Sundown M Ranch in Yakima, told ADAW that his treatment facility has seen the greatest impact from legalization affecting its work in the school system, involving the conversations about marijuana that take place with parents.

“The parents will say, ‘Well, at least they’re not drinking,’” Munson said. “They are using a rationale that it is not as bad [as other substances].”

Key findings

The 140-page report offers at best a preliminary assessment of the impact of legalization and commercialization, with many of its featured data points extending either to 2014 (the year when commercialization began) or just partly into 2015.

The text does document, however, some increases in marijuana diversion, incidents of driving under the influence of marijuana and rates of marijuana abuse in some subgroups — all of which could be at least partly attributable to ease of access to the drug. Forty-three states in the United States have seen diversion of Washington state marijuana to within their borders since 2012, according to the report.

However, the report also points out that at least in the period from 2008 to the start of commercialization in 2014, ease of access for middle and high school students has actually remained mostly stable — and in fact decreased among eighth graders from 2012 to 2014.

Patterns in treatment admissions for marijuana use differ in the adult and youth populations, according to the report. The percentage of treatment admissions (including both residential and outpatient) for marijuana use in the adult population has declined some since 2010, when it was at 13 percent. The figure for the first nine months of 2015 was 10 percent.

Conversely, while marijuana accounted for 66 percent of youth treatment admissions in the state in 2010, the percentage had increased to 70 percent by the first nine months of 2015. Yet that does not mean that more young people are going into treatment overall in Washington.

“Statewide youth treatment admissions have been decreasing over the past five years,” the report states. “Due to state budget pressures and their impacts on treatment centers, access to services is limited and is not adequate to meet demand.”

On the other hand, those who are licensed to produce, process or sell recreational marijuana (a total of 1,164 licensees among the three categories as of last July) appear to be having little trouble meeting demand. By the one-year mark of commercialization, the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board had approved more than 700 marijuana-containing products for retail sale, while vetoing fewer than 30 product applications. From June 2014 to July 2015, total sales in the recreational marijuana market were over $307 million, and total state excise taxes in that period were over $76 million.

“They really have tried to create a marketplace,” Munson said of state officials’ implementation of the law. That has been slowed somewhat by some local communities’ actions to blocking the licensing of marijuana businesses in their jurisdictions. Eight of the 20 counties where a majority of voters did not approve legalization in 2012 have either adopted a moratorium or an outright ban on the zoning of these businesses.

The report added in its conclusion, “Most notably, markets survive if demand remains strong. As addiction is one of the possible consequences of consuming this substance, the state is assured a stable market.”

Treatment center’s view

Sundown M Ranch’s Munson sees similar patterns to the report’s data in the patient population at his center. While traditionally just under 90 percent of adolescent patients reported regular marijuana use, that has increased to 95 percent in the past year, he said. Also, in a trend that resembles some treatment patients’ long-standing attitude about continuing some level of drinking in their recovery, Munson said “there is more of a resistance to stopping use of marijuana.”

The report also outlines the details of two state legislative acts that were signed into law last year. House Bill 2136, focusing on marijuana market reforms, altered the local revenue-sharing structure for commercial marijuana, as only local governments that permit retail establishments are now able to receive a tax disbursement. That law also will usher in a new tax-sharing formula in fiscal year 2017, under which more guaranteed revenue will go up-front to the state general fund before it is distributed to local governments.

Munson believes it is too early to tell how the marketplace will evolve and what effects this ultimately will have on community health and well-being. He said the legalization of marijuana never will fuel an immediate catastrophic impact. Its ultimate results won’t be fully evident for a decade or even a generation, he said.

For the report, go to https://drive.google.com/file/d/0Bxs3xMLjUamANHhRRkluWkRobXM/view.

Bottom Line…

A report on the early results of the legalization and commercialization of recreational marijuana in Washington state outlines the challenges and potential adverse effects of establishing a stable regulatory model for the drug.