The Impact of Legalized Recreational Marijuana

It’s a conversation that has been brewing for years in our state, but now, a new sense of urgency is present. While there's still some time before votes will determine whether recreational marijuana will be legalized this November, the conversation is narrowing in on how legalization can impact both youth and public health professionals.

While this is not an exhaustive list, let’s touch on a few key areas of impact:

1. Marijuana Products and Marketing

Legalization of recreational marijuana will add to the changing landscape of marijuana products, including edibles (“medibles”) and concentrates. Edibles take longer to digest and produce a high, so people may consume more to feel the effects, leading to a dangerous- level high. The use of marijuana concentrates has become increasingly more popular, which is worrisome due to the high potency of THC in these products (50-80% THC). In the early 1990s, average THC content in marijuana was roughly 3.7%; in 2016, it was 13.18% (

Along with new marijuana products comes new marketing. Many edible products mimic candy and other sweet and salty snacks, which can easily be mistaken for regular candy or snacks by youth. The packaging and flavors makes them all the more appealing and consumable for children and youth.

2. Marijuana Remains Illegal Federally

Marijuana is classified as a Schedule I at the Federal level. Schedule I drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse (United States Drug Enforcement Agency, 2018). When developing policy and regulations to control recreational marijuana, this separation between state and federal law allows for potential loopholes and barriers to enforcement.

3. Maintaining a Workforce

Legalization of recreational marijuana brings many questions and challenges for employers. Maintaining safety measures at workplaces will become more difficult for several reasons: Policies defining drug-free workplaces will need to be redefined, to include procedures for non-discriminatory discipline and drug testing upon legalization. Employers will also be challenged with navigating how their employee’s protections (like use of Family Medical Leave Act) will be affected. With drug testing abilities lagging behind law and policy, there is a large grey area expected for employers.

4. A Shift in Public Health Campaigns and Efforts

We saw a slight shift in public efforts upon legalization of medical marijuana, and we should expect this again if recreational marijuana becomes legal. Public health professionals should prepare to focus on harm reduction messaging alongside prevention messaging. We can expect to have conversations around secondhand marijuana smoke, keeping your marijuana supply out of reach from children, responsible adult use, and drugged driving. We should also expect to be involved in further research around the health effects of recreational versus medical and the use of different products (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2017).

So, how do we proceed?

We do what we do best. Whether recreational marijuana passes in November or not, public health professionals have a trusted framework to continue to use and adapt as necessary. Promoting health and preventing disease and injury will remain the name of our game. Based on the core functions of public health, we will continue to (1) assess health issues related to marijuana use through data collection, (2) develop policy through education and community partnerships, and (3) provide assurance through enforcement, a competent workforce, and evaluation (Ghosh et al., 2016). The public health community is equipped with the framework, passion, and grit necessary to overcome the impact of legalized recreational marijuana (pending November’s vote).


Ghosh, T., Van Dyke, M., Maffey, A., Whitley, E., Gillim-Ross, L., & Wolk, L. (2016). The Public Health Framework of Legalized Marijuana in Colorado. American Journal of Public Health, 106(1), 21–27.