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Recreational Marijuana and the role of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment

Posted By Sara Ramey, Thursday, April 3, 2014
Untitled Document
It started with a public vote on November 6, 2012 – the citizens of Colorado decided by a vote of 55% to 45% to legalize marijuana. This set the wheels in motion to develop a regulatory system for the production, sale, and use of marijuana. An implementation task force was established in December of 2012 to hash out the major issues. This task force grappled with issues surrounding legalization including taxation, cultivation, laboratory testing processes, and public health. By March of 2013, this task force produced recommendations that Colorado legislators turned into law by June of 2013. In just 18 months, the first set of comprehensive laws regulating marijuana in a way similar to alcohol was produced.

From a public health standpoint, Colorado is fortunate that marijuana legislation took advantage of the last 50 years of public health research on reducing tobacco use. The legislation included specific requirements to limit youth access and prevent the normalization of marijuana use. This legislation also established a specific role for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE). CDPHE was charged with monitoring changes in drug use patterns and health effects. In addition, CDPHE was charged with setting up a panel of healthcare professionals with expertise in “cannabinoid physiology” to conduct literature reviews to make science-based recommendations for policies protecting consumers and the public. In addition to the duties outlined above, CDPHE played a role in establishing laboratory testing procedures, food safety recommendations for the manufacture of marijuana-infused edible products, waste disposal requirements and prevention messaging.
In the fall of 2013, before the official legalization of marijuana, there was an “outbreak” of synthetic marijuana users presenting at emergency rooms in the Denver area with severe adverse reactions. In less than a month, there were 263 reported emergency room visits which was far greater than the normal volume. The description of this outbreak has been published elsewhere. But, more important for CDPHE were the lessons learned that could be applied to potential events associated with legal marijuana. This “outbreak” quickly brought home the point that our surveillance infrastructure was not prepared for an event related to a toxic exposure disseminated over a large geographic area. Specific lessons learned included the insensitivity of poison center call data to indicate a problem for an illicit substance, the lack of an established network of emergency room case reporters, and our inexperience in utilizing atypical disease surveillance intelligence sources such as law enforcement.

Legal marijuana activity at CDPHE began in earnest in January of 2014 as implementation funding became available. Between January and March of 2014, the CDPHE internal marijuana steering committee grew from four to 22 members, as the public health considerations of legal marijuana became clear. It has become clear that legal marijuana affects nearly every division in our organization from injury prevention, to foodborne disease investigation, to regulation of health facilities. It also has become clear that there are numerous issues that need to be addressed in new ways due to the legalization of marijuana including surveillance for acute health effects from contaminated marijuana products, safety of edible marijuana products, accidental poisonings of young children from edible products, youth prevention, use among pregnant and breastfeeding women, marijuana disposal issues, marijuana lab testing issues, substance abuse prevention, injury and impaired driving prevention, and occupational health and safety issues among growers – just to name a few.

We have just begun to develop our surveillance program. In order to monitor the prevalence of marijuana use, we have added questions to the major population-based surveys in Colorado including the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), the Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System (PRAMS), and the Child Health Survey (CHS). We have also started analyzing hospital discharge and emergency department data to evaluate baseline levels of marijuana-related trauma and morbidity. Procedures for foodborne illness investigations are being modified to include the consumption of marijuana. Finally, we have been working to shore up the weaknesses in our surveillance infrastructure by developing a more extensive network of case reporters from emergency rooms, law enforcement, medical toxicologists, and the poison center.

We are still learning about the potential public health implications of legal marijuana and look forward to reporting the actual outcome data as it becomes available. In the meantime, those who would like a head start if legal marijuana comes to their state can follow our progress and public outreach at www.colorado.gov/marijuana.
Mike Van Dyke, Ph.D., CIH
Chief, Environmental Epidemiology, Occupational Health, and Toxicology Section
Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment

Tags:  marijuana  member spotlight  surveillance 

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