By Tom Dinki

While legalizing recreational marijuana use may seem like a yes or no question, the questions become a bit more complicated when thinking about it from a public health perspective. 

What can research actually prove about the benefits and adverse side effects of marijuana? What’s the best way to store marijuana in a home with children? And just how much of that marijuana brownie is safe to eat? 

Speakers from New York, Massachusetts and Colorado tried their best to answer those questions and many others during Tuesday’s marijuana symposium at Holiday Valley Ski Resort in Ellicottville. 

Experts, speaking in front of about 120 community members, including many in the health fields, discussed Colorado and Massachusetts’ public health changes since legalizing recreational marijuana use for adults, as well as what public health questions New York might face if it does indeed legalize in the near future. 

“It’s obvious what we’re talking about is not our mother’s marijuana anymore and this is a whole new world we’re entering into,” said Kate Ebersole, facilitator of the Western New York Public Health Alliance, which put on the symposium along with the New York State Public Health Association. 

One of the event’s three speakers, Dr. R. Lorraine Collins, said it’s crucial New York get a handle on the health impact of marijuana, as she believes legalization is a matter of if, not when. 

While legalization ultimately did not make it into the finalized state budget passed in April, Democratic lawmakers are trying to push a revamped legalization bill ahead of the end of the legislative session next week. Even if that effort fails, it’s widely believed legalization will happen in the foreseeable future. 

Collins, who serves on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s workgroup for drafting legislation on legalizing recreational marijuana, said far more research is needed on both the positives and negatives of the drug, noting there’s even still debate whether medical marijuana helps or exacerbates PTSD. 

“We’re all just kind going on people’s gut sense of what should work. We really don’t know a lot,” she said. “ … People sometimes think, ‘Oh, it’s like alcohol.’ It is not. Alcohol, we really have a very good handle on.”

She said researching marijuana’s long-term health effects is difficult given the increased potency of the drug. She said marijuana in the 1970s often contained just 5 to 7 percent THC — the drug’s psychoactive ingredient — while some strains today can carry up to 50 percent THC. 

Another roadblock for research is the fact the federal government still considers marijuana, along with heroin and ecstasy, a Schedule 1 drug. 

“Say I wanted to look at the effects of cannabis on driving, which is a huge question … I would need three federal agencies to give me a license,” said Collins, associate dean for research for the University at Buffalo’s School of Public Health and Health Professions. “And that’s not an easy thing to get. By the time you jump through all the hoops, I’ve known people where it’s taken three years.” 

Cheryl Sbarra discussed much of the red tape that’s come with Massachusetts’ 2016 recreational marijuana legalization. 

Sbarra, the senior staff attorney for the Massachusetts Association of Health Boards, noted that while the state’s Cannabis Control Commission oversees all aspects of administering marijuana use, the state does give quite a bit of power to local municipalities. For example, cities and towns can ban marijuana shops inside their borders. 

One issue that’s arisen is that the state doesn’t classify marijuana edibles — treats laced with THC — as food. 

“The rationale for that is they didn’t want local boards of health to have to enforce the food code in these establishments because it’s time-consuming and difficult,” Sbarra said. 

“That didn’t set very well with the local boards of health, knowing that the state doesn’t have huge resources to send inspectors. If they didn’t inspect, really no one was going to be inspecting, so they can incorporate the food code into local regulations.” 

The state’s marijuana education campaign, “Responsibility Grows Here,” is more about responsible use than abstinence, Contreras said, adding it advocates safe use for adults and non-use for those under 21 and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. 

Her advice for New York was to decide early on what aspects of marijuana are and are not legal, communicate well with impacted parties and “stand behind the scene.” 

“There’s a lot we don’t know and it’s OK to say that,” she said. “Let’s emphasize what we do know and then if you’re able to, invest in research so we can know better.”