Regulating pot: do it right

Legislators have their work cut out for them this year. They have to figure out how to implement legalization of recreational marijuana in Maine, and that’s a big job. There’s a lot of talk about regulating marijuana like we regulate alcohol. In fact, supporters of legalized recreational pot say that “marijuana is safer than alcohol; it’s time to treat it that way.” I don’t think we’ve done such a great job regulating alcohol, but that’s a post for another day.

There’s this great line from one of Joan Armatrading’s songs (Help Yourself), “if you’re gonna to do it, do it right.” That’s what legislators should be doing when they set up Maine’s marijuana regulations.

I propose regulating recreational marijuana in Maine like we regulate tobacco. I wish I could say that this is my idea, but it’s not. Two researchers who are experts in tobacco control lay out their arguments that describe “a robust demand reduction program modeled on evidence-based tobacco control programs” so that “a large industry” (aka Big Marijuana) doesn’t take control of the market and regulatory environment.

In other words, let’s make this about public health, not profits. Here’s how some of their suggestions would apply in Maine for regulating a large-scale marijuana industry, just like Big Tobacco has been regulated:

  • Put the Maine CDC in charge. The referendum puts the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry in charge of creating regulations for legalized pot, and that just doesn’t make sense. Public policies should be health-related and should focus on protecting nonusers, preventing initiation, and encouraging users to quit. That’s the work of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Other agencies should regulate the aspects of the law that they are actually expert in. For example, the Department of Agriculture should be in charge of regulations about growing marijuana.
  • Tax and spend: use tax revenue from marijuana sales to fund prevention and treatment. Instead of putting tax revenue into the General Fund (like the Maine referendum/law does), earmark that revenue for licensing enforcement, implementation of underage access laws, prevention and education programs, and treatment for cannabis use disorder (yes, that’s a real thing).
  • Control market madness. To protect the public from Big Marijuana strategies to increase and sustain marijuana use, control marketing and advertising. This includes banning free or discounted samples, event sponsorship like 4/20 celebrations, using cartoon characters to make marijuana appealing to underage youth, and unsubstantiated claims about marijuana’s medicinal properties.
  • Use warning labels. Smoking or otherwise consuming marijuana is not without risks. The minimal research we have on that is clear. Warning labels should include the risk of dependence and addiction, cancer, and cardiovascular, respiratory, and neurological disease. Warnings should also include the risks of operating a vehicle while impaired.

As the dust settles on the referendum fight, there’s still time to make changes to Maine’s law. Legislators, if you’re gonna do it, do it right.

Alison Webb

About Alison Webb

Alison Webb is a public health consultant with over 20 years experience in community outreach, grassroots organizing, implementing and evaluating evidence-based programs, and advocating for healthy policies at the Maine State Legislature. Alison is especially interested in what science tells us about promoting health and wellness and how we can apply that to live well in Maine. The blog describes recent public health research and give readers insights into how to use that knowledge to lead healthy lives.