As government officials in a state where voters gave their blessing to a recreational marijuana initiative, Colorado public health leaders have inherited the dual role of implementing the will of the people while trying to minimize the adverse consequences. Last month they launched an initial public awareness campaign as part of a $5.7 million state-funded effort to improve understanding of the state's marijuana law, using a light but informative approach in the initial rollout.
“We realize that scare-tactic messages often do not work,” says Ali Maffey, policy and communication unit supervisor at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Maffey says focus-group testing of the department's messaging in the “Good to Know” campaign found that catchy slogans such as “Public space is not the place” (emphasizing the law's ban on marijuana use in public settings) were easily retained by residents.
State officials are rolling out the campaign gradually, starting with print materials, digital information and radio spots and soon moving into televised ads. Also, based on a 2014 state legislative directive to target high-risk populations with its longer-term prevention efforts, the state agency is developing messaging tailored to youths (the legal age for retail purchases of marijuana is 21, as it is for alcohol), pregnant and breastfeeding women, and the state's Latino population, says Maffey.
She says several misconceptions remain among residents with regard to the state law, for which Colorado has collected tax revenue for a little over a year now (around $41 million in the period from last January through October). “There is still a lot of confusion about public use, which you can easily tell from walking down the streets,” Maffey says. In addition, “One in five residents don't know the legal age limit,” she says.
The target of the initial campaigning is adults, says Maffey, with preventing illegal access as the first step. “None of these initial ads are targeting youth, but if they happen to see them, it's a great message for them to have,” she says.
Other components of the $5.7 million awareness campaign include establishment of a web portal to consolidate the public information available from a variety of state agencies, as well as an effort to align messaging to the public across agencies.
Informed by research
An advisory committee to the state has been reviewing research in order to help inform state officials' health-related messaging about the marijuana law. Last week, the Retail Marijuana Public Health Advisory Committee published a review of scientific literature that included these observations about some of the problems associated with marijuana use:
Use of marijuana during pregnancy has been associated with several negative effects on exposed offspring, including decreased cognitive function and attention.
The risk of a motor vehicle accident doubles among drivers who recently used marijuana, and the risk of a crash is higher with use of marijuana and alcohol compared with use of only one of the substances.
Use of marijuana in adolescence and young adulthood carries several risks, including for later marijuana dependence, later use of other substances, and problems with memory and academic achievement.
“The committee's work represents one of the first and most comprehensive reviews to assess the strength of credible scientific literature available today regarding marijuana use,” Department of Public Health & Environment executive director and chief medical officer Larry Wolk said in a news release last week.