By Holly Jones, BA, JD candidate
How can the federal government ensure consumer safety in an industry that distributes a substance the federal government classifies as an illegal drug? The federal government effectively banned the use of marijuana nationwide with the Controlled Substance Act of 1970, classifying marijuana as a Schedule I substance according. Regardless of this federal prohibition, 23 states and Washington, DC have legalized marijuana for medical use. A lack of federal legalization allows states to independently enact their own distinct medical marijuana laws.
In a dataset released yesterday on LawAtlas.org, the distinctions become clear — there are currently 24 variations of medical marijuana program product safety guidelines in the United States, some of which bear little, if any, resemblance to one another. While some states, like Connecticut and Massachusetts, provide incredibly comprehensive guidelines for their medical marijuana programs, others provide skeletal legislation and instead grant a great deal of autonomy to local jurisdictions.
While variation may allow researchers to more effectively evaluate the approaches, from a patient-safety perspective, uniformity has its advantages. Lack of uniformity creates a number of product safety concerns, many of which stem from gaps between producers and consumers. Regardless of rigorous product testing standards that ensure only products of a certain caliber hit the shelves, if consumers are unaware that such standards exist, they aren’t likely to trust the products. Much of this miscommunication, especially in the absence of federal standards, arises from inadequate labeling and packaging standards. Standards are particularly important in the medical marijuana industry because of issues like product potency. This seems to happen in other industries, too, but not as frequently. While stopped at a country store in Vermont last summer, I spotted plastic glasses of wine for sale on the shelves. They were covered in plastic wrap, without a label or other standard markings. This incident was memorable because our alcohol regulations more frequently prevail. I can generally proceed with relative confidence that the wine I’m purchasing isn’t going to poison me. This isn’t always the case for patients seeking medical marijuana.
Considering the number of states incorporating marijuana into their clean air laws, smoking medical marijuana may become a thing of the past as edibles and other derivative products rise in popularity. The government provides complex guidelines for both food and drugs, yet somehow medical marijuana products that are hybrid food and drug, lack federal oversight entirely aside from their branding as illegal substances. The speed at which states are passing medical marijuana legislation suggests a rapid shift in public perception and growing acceptance of medical marijuana as a valid form of treatment.
Lack of federal product safety guidelines means that states are solely responsible for ensuring that their citizens have access to the safest products, both in terms of the quality of the products themselves and ensuring that medical marijuana products are used responsibly. Medical marijuana product safety encompasses issues faced by food, pharmaceuticals, and alcohol, a unique combination that brings with it a number of consumer concerns. Luckily the medical marijuana industry has these industries to draw upon to see what works best in terms of ensuring that consumers have access to high quality products and are comfortable and familiar with those products. Medical marijuana is quickly become much more available across the nation, and states will likely need a great deal of experimentation and flexibility before understanding how to best regulate this new frontier.
Ms. Jones was a summer intern with the Public Health Law Research program. She worked on the Medical Marijuana datasets published yesterday to LawAtlas.org.