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Will California make sure recreational marijuana products are safe for consumption?

Will California make sure recreational marijuana products are safe for consumption?

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[Photo by Alice via Flickr.]

On January 1, recreational sales of marijuana became legal in California, giving tens of millions of people the right to walk into a store and buy a bag of weed. Given that the state is letting cities and counties decide how they want to regulate the industry within their borders, the rollout of recreational sales here promises to be more complex — and more challenging — than in other states that have embraced the for-profit commercial cannabis industry. At the same time, tight federal restrictions on the drug have impeded research on the health effects of using cannabis. California cities and states will have to balance upholding the will of the public, which overwhelmingly voted for recreational sales, while still ensuring the products are safe to use and people are informed about their risks.

To ensure safety, the state will require all cannabis products to be tested in a state-licensed lab. As of now, the state does not regulate the pesticides or fungicides marijuana growers use on their crops. This new requirement is likely to be a burdensome shift for retailers and growers, particularly because of California’s Prop 65. That’s the law that requires businesses to notify Californians about the presence of any chemicals known to cause cancer or birth defects in their products. Many of the common pesticides and fungicides used in marijuana cultivation are included in the state’s lengthy list of such chemicals. In other states that legalized marijuana, like Colorado and Oregon, testing revealed a significant percentage of cannabis was tainted with pesticide residue.

So how is the state going to make sure cannabis products are safe for public consumption? How are regulators going to test for potentially harmful chemicals? How did other states like Colorado and Washington enforce their policies, and what happened when products had to be pulled because of potentially dangerous health effects? And what will Prop 65 compliance look like for recreational sales here in California? These are all questions I’ll try to answer during my reporting

On top of this, I also want to look into what this seismic shift in public attitudes toward recreational marijuana will mean for educational efforts, specifically those aimed at children. California’s law allows for legal purchase and possession only for those 21 and older. Yet according to the University of Michigan’s annual “Monitoring the Future” report, nearly 6 percent of 12th graders nationwide report using marijuana daily, surpassing cigarettes (4.2 percent). The study says while there hasn’t been a big uptick in marijuana usage since 2011 nationally, state-level policies are shifting behavior: In states with medical use laws, almost 17 percent of high school seniors surveyed said they had used edible cannabis products, compared to around 8 percent in states without medical use laws.

These are all issues I hope to explore through my 2018 California Fellowship reporting grant. My initial steps will be to visit labs applying for a state testing license, talk to growers who are trying to get their crops in compliance, and interview state regulators who are looking to get inspection and enforcement up and running. I’ll also need to talk to teachers, students, city public health officials involved in the education campaign, and researchers who are looking into the effects of youth marijuana use. I’d also like to speak with parents about how they’re talking to their children about this issue.

It’s a lot to cover and explore, but it certainly will be worth the effort.

[Photo by Alice via Flickr.]

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Want to improve your data journalism skills?  Apply now for the 2018 Data Fellowship -- four all-expenses-paid days of training on data acquisition, analysis and visualization, a $2,000-$4,000  reporting grant and six months of expert mentoring.  Dates:  October 17-20. Deadline: August 27 for California journalists, Sept. 7 for journalists from other states

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