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Surprising Science

How Will Legalizing Marijuana Affect Public Health?

Colorado and Washington passed ballot on Tuesday legalizing the consumption and cultivation of marijuana, allowing researchers to better study its effects on public health. 

What’s the Latest Development?

Two ballot initiatives approved last Tuesday in Colorado and Washington make the states a more friendly place for marijuana users than Amsterdam. So how will that affect public health? The change in state law may help provide solid evidence to answer that question for the first time, said Beau Kilmer of the RAND Corporation’s Drug Policy Research Center: The new laws “now provide public health researchers with a real way to examine the effects of marijuana on a population that no longer needs to skirt the law.”

What’s the Big Idea?

The most important outcome of laws that legalize marijuana may not have to do with the direct effects of smoking cannabis at all. Rather, marijuana’s effect on alcohol consumption is likely to determine whether the law is, on the whole, good or bad for public health. Jonathan Caulkins, a professor of public policy at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, said: “If you’re optimistic, as marijuana use goes up, alcohol use will go down. That’s a big win: alcohol generates a lot more social harm.” Even a 10 per cent shift in alcohol use, in either direction, would be “a bigger deal than anything that could happen with marijuana” itself, Caulkins said. 

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