As state mulls marijuana market, health officials launch public education campaign .

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Marijuana edibles in a store window in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons photo by nickolette22
Marijuana edibles in a store window in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons photo by nickolette22

About two years after Vermont legalized marijuana possession and as lawmakers weigh whether to establish a legal market for the drug, the state’s Department of Health has launched a public education campaign about cannabis use.

The campaign, called “Let’s Talk Cannabis” includes a new website, and resources for health care providers, parents, educators, and others with information for people the department says are at “greater risk of serious health problems” that arise from using marijuana.

These include young people in their teens and early 20s, and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

In a statement, Vermont’s health commissioner, Dr. Mark Levine, said the campaign is aimed at giving Vermonters information they need to make “safe and informed choices” about using the substance.

Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine speaks at the governor’s press conference on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019 where state officials unveiled a report the governor’s Opioid Coordination Council. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger
Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

“With changes in the legal landscape surrounding possession and use, it’s important that people understand how it can affect their health,” Levine said in a statement.

The campaign also comes as lawmakers continue to contemplate expanding marijuana legalization in the state to include a regulated market.

Vermont’s legalization bill, which legislators passed and Gov. Phil Scott allowed to become law in 2018, lets Vermonters possess and cultivate small amounts of marijuana. But it did not legalize marijuana dispensaries, or establish any way for people to purchase the drug outside the black market.

The department’s deputy commissioner, Kelly Dougherty, said health officials wanted to launch the campaign before lawmakers begin to debate legalizing a marijuana market in the upcoming legislation.

“We wanted to be ahead of that with some messaging to help folks understand the health implications and the safety implications of using cannabis,” Dougherty said.

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Dougherty said that in 2020, the department will be pushing out the campaign online, through videos and on social media.

Health officials say they are also launching the campaign because the state has a particularly high rate of marijuana use.

According to the last National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 18.6% of Vermonters over the age of 12 reported using the drug in the last 30 days. That’s compared with a U.S. average of only about 9% percent.

The health department’s new website warns that cannabis use by young people can lead to mental health conditions including anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia and harm their developing brains.

“Research shows that when you use cannabis your memory, learning, and attention are harmed. Some studies suggest a permanent impact as well,” the website says.

Michael Schirling, Vermont’s commissioner of public safety, applauded the health department’s campaign.

Commissioner of Public Safety Michael Schirling. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

“Ensuring that people have good factual information about the potential impacts of cannabis, particularly about the developing brains in young people is key,” he said.

“The fear is that there will be consequences that are long term that we won’t see for a long time.”

Schirling and the governor say they would support legislation establishing a legal market for marijuana if it includes provisions that would fund additional education to prevent youth drug usage and roadside safety initiatives. The governor has said that in particular, he would need the state to legalize roadside saliva testing in order for the measure to earn his support.

The saliva testing is backed by House lawmakers, but strongly opposed in the Senate. While the tests can detect the presence of marijuana in someone’s system, they can’t determine whether someone is impaired at the time they are administered, raising civil liberties concerns.

The Senate passed legislation to establish a taxed and regulated market for marijuana in 2019, but it stalled in the House, which had made several changes to the bill.

But at the end of the 2019 session, House Democrats said they would return to the legislation and pass it, in 2020.

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