Evaluating the public health impacts of legalizing recreational cannabis use in the United States

Wayne Hall, Michael Lynskey
Addiction 2016, 111 (10): 1764-73

BACKGROUND AND AIMS: Since 2012 four US states have legalized the retail sale of cannabis for recreational use by adults, and more are likely to follow. This report aimed to (1) briefly describe the regulatory regimes so far implemented; (2) outline their plausible effects on cannabis use and cannabis-related harm; and (3) suggest what research is needed to evaluate the public health impact of these policy changes.

METHOD: We reviewed the drug policy literature to identify: (1) plausible effects of legalizing adult recreational use on cannabis price and availability; (2) factors that may increase or limit these effects; (3) pointers from studies of the effects of legalizing medical cannabis use; and (4) indicators of cannabis use and cannabis-related harm that can be monitored to assess the effects of these policy changes.

RESULTS: Legalization of recreational use will probably increase use in the long term, but the magnitude and timing of any increase is uncertain. It will be critical to monitor: cannabis use in household and high school surveys; cannabis sales; the number of cannabis plants legally produced; and the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content of cannabis. Indicators of cannabis-related harms that should be monitored include: car crash fatalities and injuries; emergency department presentations; presentations to addiction treatment services; and the prevalence of regular cannabis use among young people in mental health services and the criminal justice system.

CONCLUSIONS: Plausible effects of legalizing recreational cannabis use in the United States include substantially reducing the price of cannabis and increasing heavy use and some types of cannabis-related harm among existing users. In the longer term it may also increase the number of new users.

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