Although it remains much too soon to evaluate the impacts of Washington state voters' 2012 decision to legalize marijuana sales for recreational use, one addiction treatment executive says the policy change in his state has palpably altered the conversation about the drug. That greatly worries Scott Munson.
“It is strange how normalized this becomes,” says Munson, executive director of Sundown M Ranch in Yakima and a longtime leader on the board of the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (NAATP).
And it is not only youths—the primary target of Munson's concern over the effects of legalization—who appear to be openly speaking a different language about marijuana. In the effort to educate communities about marijuana's risks regardless of its legal status, leaders at Munson's facility find that parents often pose a greater challenge than their children, he says.
“You'll hear parents saying, 'C'mon, it's not like my kid is drinking—he's just smoking pot,” says Munson. He and three other treatment executives will engage in an Aug. 25 morning panel discussion on how the treatment community should respond to shifting public sentiment about marijuana at the National Conference on Addiction Disorders (NCAD) in St. Louis, sponsored by the publishers of Addiction Professional and Behavioral Healthcare.
With state regulators having to build from scratch what amounts to a business model for the production and distribution of marijuana, the implementation of Washington's legalization measure has been implemented at a deliberate pace. It has been only around a month since legalized marijuana became available in the state, in contrast to the situation in Colorado where leaders already have had months to witness the rollout of the initiative its voters approved in the same election cycle two years ago.
Still, Munson foresees the distinct possibility that his state will witness some of the same problems that some Colorado treatment administrators have lamented—many involving what seems to be an inevitable increase in exposure to marijuana among youths, such as through the proliferation of edible products sold in retail establishments.
At this point, Munson says legalization is having no noticeable impact on the presenting issues he's seeing in Sundown M Ranch's treatment population. He believes any changes will surface gradually, but remains concerned that the state may see an eventual erosion in accomplishment among young people exposed in greater numbers to marijuana.
Also, anticipated court fights will slow the influx of legal marijuana in some Washington communities. There most certainly will be lawsuits over some counties' and municipalities' refusal to allow retail outlets in their community despite interest from licensed sellers.
These continued disputes reflect some of the prevailing division over the issue in Washington, where a majority of voters in around half of the state's counties rejected the legalization initiative but where an overwhelming yes vote in metropolitan King County gave the measure a convincing overall margin of victory.
Lack of advocacy
The panel discussion at NCAD will address what type of messaging about marijuana the treatment field should deliver to communities. Munson says legalization supporters in his state were extremely successful in framing the discussion in terms of allowing the recreational user to take a hit on a Friday night. In reality, he says, “You're legalizing THC in all its forms. You're getting the full meal deal.”
He adds that the treatment community in his state hesitated in 2012 to get pulled into a debate that would amount to passing judgment on which substances are acceptable and unacceptable. But now there is some regret over that lack of involvement.
He acknowledges that treatment providers probably underestimated the persuasiveness of the other side. That clearly won't be possible in other states where legalization measures are likely to appear before voters soon (such as neighboring Oregon, where a measure will appear on this fall's ballot. Yet it remains to be seen whether any pushback can overcome public sentiment that clearly is moving toward a regulatory rather than prohibition approach to marijuana.