Schaeffer Expert Warns of Lax Regulation of U.S. Cannabis Market at U.N. Event

Rosalie Liccardo Pacula presented findings at the U.N. Commission on Narcotic Drugs side event.

Buoyed by positive polling, cannabis may soon be legal at the federal level as policymakers discuss bipartisan approaches to legalization. Already legal in 20 U.S. states, many other states are poised to expand the cannabis industry’s commercial operations.

Against this backdrop, Schaeffer Center Senior Fellow Rosalie Liccardo Pacula presented research on the implications of cannabis legalization to policy leaders from more than 40 countries weighing their own cannabis laws. The event was a joint partnership between the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the International Society for the Study of Drug Policy (ISSDP). It was a side event of the 65th session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs.

Pacula emphasized the relatively weak regulations in U.S. states compared to those of Canada and Uruguay and the potential public health consequences of this regulatory approach.

High-potency products

In her presentation, Pacula discussed how regulatory approaches developed by states thus far have led to substantial increases in the average potency of cannabis available in the U.S., greater diversification in the types of high-potency products available, and large declines in the price of the cannabis plant and price per gram of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the plant’s main psychoactive compound.

“An element that is of particular importance is the amount of cannabis sold in a single transaction or over a specific period of time,” Pacula said in an interview after the event. “Sales limits are usually put in place to encourage moderation, but U.S. state regulators have largely bypassed this responsibility when it comes to cannabis. This enables not just excess sales of THC in each transaction but also greater opportunity for diversion from the legal to the illicit market.”

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The amount of cannabis a consumer can purchase in an average U.S. state is double to triple the amount a similar consumer can buy in Canada or Uruguay, and because they cap potency on most products sold in retail markets, the total amount of THC purchased in the U.S. substantially exceeds that of the other two countries.

Negative health outcomes

Cannabis concentrates and edibles, which carry two to four times the levels of THC compared to flower material in the U.S., are growing at a faster rate than cannabis flower in most U.S. markets. Pacula noted that the growing popularity of these products, coupled with their greater risk of negative health outcomes, including addiction, psychosis, and frequent, cyclical vomiting and nausea from long-term use, should be considered by other countries developing regulatory approaches to an adult-use market.

“Allowing the industry unrestricted freedom to develop new products can allow them to target young and vulnerable audiences who are at greater risk of becoming lifelong heavy users,” she said. This is especially true for products like cannabis wines, candies and ice cream—all products that have been developed and sold in the U.S. marketplace.

Pacula noted that recent studies show higher rates of cannabis-involved emergency room visits in states that have allowed commercialized cannabis markets as compared to U.S. states that have not yet legalized or opened stores for adult use.

“Regulations that focus on making a safe product available and that promote moderate consumption are largely being ignored within the U.S. We hope these types of evidence-based, public-health-focused regulations will be at the heart of federal legislation,” Pacula said.

Joining Pacula was Wayne Hall, emeritus professor at the National Centre for Youth Substance Use Research at the University of Queensland and consultant to the World Health Organization, and Angela Me, chief of the Research and Trend Analysis Branch at UNODC. The event was moderated by Jean-Luc Lemahieu, director of the Division for Policy Analysis and Public Affairs at UNODC.

In addition to the U.S., other European nations like Germany are also weighing cannabis legalization. Pacula has been asked to present her research to German policymakers this June as they deliberate regulations for the legalization of cannabis in that country.

Pacula, the Elizabeth Garrett Chair in Health Policy, Economics & Law and associate professor at the USC Price School of Public Policy, is also co-director of the Policy Affinity group at the USC Institute for Addiction Science and current president of ISSDP. She has been asked to present her research to German policymakers in June 2022 as they deliberate regulations for the legalization of cannabis in that country.