CA: Panelists Smoke Out Pros And Cons Of Marijuana Legalization

Photo Credit: Liz Ketcham

Experts said the legalization of recreational cannabis could increase tax revenue and facilitate discussion between patients and doctors about marijuana use.

Politicians, medical researchers and economic analysts reviewed economic and medical implications of California’s recent legalization of marijuana at an event at UCLA on Thursday. The panelists said they are optimistic the cannabis industry will be integrated into society, but are unsure of how it will develop in Los Angeles.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed the California adult-use marijuana law Jan. 1, making Los Angeles’ cannabis market the largest of any city in the world. However, federal law still classifies cannabis as a Schedule I drug, along with other illegal addictive substances such as heroin and LSD.

Several experts said they think legalizing marijuana will increase the state government’s tax revenue.

Fiona Ma, a former California State Assembly member, said only 25 percent of medical marijuana dispensaries paid taxes in 2014. It is difficult for the government to collect taxes from dispensaries because the process operates largely in cash, she said.

Ma said many banks refuse to offer services to marijuana dispensaries.

“No bank wants to tell you that they are banking the industry because they don’t want be on the front of the Wall Street Journal,” she said.

Ma said she is advocating for a bill to allow banks and financial institutions to provide services to the cannabis industry, which is estimated to be an $8 to 20 billion market.

Cat Packer, executive director and general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Cannabis Regulation, said she thinks it is hard to estimate how many jobs legal cannabis will create in California because of the large number of people already employed in the black market for marijuana.

Experts added the effect of cannabis use on crime rates continues to be unclear.

Jeffrey Chen, executive director of the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative, said studies that measure the change in property crime rates around dispensaries conflict with each other.

“Obviously crime rates relating to cannabis will go down, but the evidence connecting cannabis to other crimes like property and alcohol-related crimes is a mixed bag,” he said.

Medical specialists said they are cautious about cannabis’ health benefits because researchers have conducted relatively few studies on its effects.

Shaun Hussain, an assistant clinical professor of pediatric neurology at UCLA, said he thinks more research is needed to gauge cannabis’ safety.

“Right now, we have a lot of guesses about the safety of marijuana, and that is really the issue,” he said. “We need to figure out what are the medical benefits, who are those benefits for.”

Chen said it is difficult for researchers to acquire cannabis for research because it is classified under federal law as a Schedule I substance with no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. He added there is also less grant funding for studies on the therapeutic effects of cannabis.

“For studies that focus on the harm of cannabis, there are huge funds,” he said. “For therapeutic studies, there is significantly less funding.”

Rashmi Muller, an assistant clinical professor at UCLA, said social stigma has made it difficult for doctors to document and collect data on cannabis use because patients are often unwilling to disclose their cannabis usage.

Howard Padwa, a researcher at the UCLA Integrated Substance Abuse Program, said he hopes legalizing marijuana will help dispel the social stigma surrounding cannabis.

“(Legalization) will shift the way we talk about cannabis, making it something that physicians are willing to talk to patients about, in terms of potential medical treatment, and also in terms of something that can cause problems,” he said.

Chen said he thinks the public must be informed about cannabis research, and added he thinks Los Angeles has an important role to play in the cannabis industry.

“(People) should be very skeptical of things that they read … on both sides. There are competing agendas and money at stake,” he said. “I think Los Angeles is going to play the biggest role in how cannabis is regulated, researched, and utilized by the public.”