In a recent study published in the journal Pediatrics, researchers surveying e-cigarette use by Connecticut teens found that nearly one in five high school students who admit to using an electronic smoking device have also used it to vaporize cannabis or byproducts like hash oil and wax infused with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive cannabis ingredient. Teens can use these devices covertly with little risk of detection because e-cigarettes used to consume hash oil or similar substances do not emit the odor of marijuana.

The popularity of e-cigarettes and marijuana among teens may be a surprise to researchers, but it shouldn’t be. For the last few years, anyone curious about adapting an e-cigarette or related device, such as a vape pen, to inhale marijuana could simply go online and browse scores of helpful websites, YouTube videos and tutorials on the process. 

Restricting youth access to recreational marijuana is just one of a host of administrative and regulatory challenges that policymakers and public health professionals are facing as a growing number of states are legalizing (or considering legalizing) use of the drug. (As of September 2015, 23 states, including the District of Columbia and Guam, have passed laws permitting the use of medical marijuana and four states, including the District of Columbia, have legalized the recreational use of marijuana.)

Regulating marijuana can be complex, given the drug’s different treatment under state and federal laws, the wide range of state and local regulatory systems and administrative structures, and the industry’s rapid growth. Nevertheless, many of the obstacles that policymakers wrestle with in regulating the use of an illegal drug are familiar to those who have worked for decades to protect the public from the devastating health impact of a product that has been legal for centuries – tobacco.  

Although marijuana and tobacco products differ in many ways – particularly in the health risks they pose – most regulatory schemes for marijuana focus on public health goals similar to tobacco control goals, such as limiting use and restricting youth access. These goals are driven by public health concerns about the risks of frequent marijuana use, particularly when used by the young or by pregnant women, as well as public safety concerns posed by drivers under the influence.

What’s more, these public health goals can be accomplished by using strategies similar to those used in tobacco control. Here, for example, are just a few common evidence-based tobacco control policies that state and local governments could consider as possible options for marijuana regulation. Some policies might be politically challenging to implement. Others might already be state law, but localities might have the legal authority to adopt more stringent measures. These examples are simply reminders of the many regulatory analogues between tobacco control and marijuana regulation, and possible public health policies to consider as this new U.S. industry continues to grow:

  • Restrict Usage. Examples: Prohibit marijuana smoking in public places, workplaces, federally subsidized housing, multi-unit residential properties, and when operating motorized vehicles, etc.
  • Prohibit Youth Access. Examples: Raise to 21 the minimum legal sales age to purchase marijuana products; require tamper-proof, child-resistant packaging of all marijuana products; require easily visible graphic public health warnings (labels) on marijuana products
  • Develop Robust Retailer Licensing & Zoning Laws. Examples: Set up safeguards, such as photo ID checks, to ensure compliance with minimum legal sale age requirement; restrict the number of marijuana retail outlets; prohibit the sale of marijuana products at certain types of establishments
  • Regulate Pricing. Examples: Set minimum price laws and prohibit price discounting; earmark revenue from taxation to substance abuse cessation and prevention, public health or similar services
  • Control Marketing and Advertising. Examples: Prohibit free samples of marijuana products; the sale of flavored marijuana products; Internet sales; and mass media advertising

Whatever one’s view of marijuana legalization and its impact on public health, state and local authorities tasked with regulating this drug can benefit from lessons learned in tobacco control. For more information on this topic, the Tobacco Control Legal Consortium has prepared a law synopsis entitled Toking, Smoking & Public Health: Lessons from Tobacco Control for Marijuana Regulation.

September 29, 2015

Kerry Cork is a Staff Attorney at the Tobacco Control Legal Consortium at the Public Health Law Center at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.