Whittier Daily News/January 5, 2018/Susan Abram
Los Angeles County health officials are considering placing remblems on legal recreational retail shops, much like the iconic letter grades found hanging on the windows of restaurants.
The emblem would the public know that the products inside the shop passed regulations, and the businesses itself is licensed and inspected, health officials said this week.
“I think an emblem program will be helpful,” said Cynthia Harding, chief deputy director for Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.
If initiated, the emblem program would be part of a broader effort to educate the public on cannabis use and safety, Harding and others said.
The upcoming messages and campaigns would include all the lessons learned from how to keep young people away from alcohol and tobacco, for example.
Even if the federal government comes down hard on California’s emerging retail recreational cannabis shops, ongoing education will be key to raising the pubic’s awareness about cannabis, whether used for recreation or medicinal purposes, she said.
“We’re trying to get unbiased, competent messages,” Harding said. “We’re working with parents, with schools, with elected officials. Our department is trying to pull together a youth campaign that is largely compiled by youth.
“It’s going to take a while for all the illegal businesses to stop doing business,” Harding added. “We’re going from an unregulated way of doing a business, to a very regulated.”
Los Angeles County has yet to approve any regulations in its unincorporated areas, which include more than 2,600 square miles or 65 percent of Los Angeles County. About 1 million people live in those areas.
The Board of Supervisors is expected to discuss and vote on a proposed set of regulations at the end of January. But concerns about public health and safety already were expressed by at least two supervisors, who asked the county’s Department of Public Health and the Office of Cannabis Management recently to craft a model that would emphasize “health equity” for communities where legal cannabis businesses would be more likely to flourish.
“Cannabis businesses have continued to multiply in low-income communities of color, reminiscent of problematic alcohol outlets and compound the deterioration of the health and vitality of surrounding neighborhoods,” according a motion crafted by supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Hilda Solis. “How these cannabis businesses are operated, and by whom, greatly affect the physical and sociocultural environment of these neighborhoods, influencing norms and values, social networks and interactions, and social and cultural expression.”
In addition to ensuring health equity, Harding said she hopes cities within the county that are allowing legal retail cannabis shops will be on board with county health inspections.
Already, shops that will open in the City of Los Angeles will undergo health and sanitation inspections from county public health officials. Eleven inspectors have been trained to inspect cannabis facilities “to ensure compliance with state regulations and local laws related to commercial cannabis businesses,” according to public health’s office of Environment Health.
Inspectors will look for general sanitation, product that is free of contamination, proper packaging and labeling, any signs of vermin, proper temperature control, proper product handling and storage and employee health.
“Environmental Health is also proposing to conduct random sampling of cannabis products and test the samples for potency(THC) levels and potential mold and pesticide contamination,” health officials said in a statement.
“I think one of the other areas, we’re really looking at is our role as a regulator,” Harding said. “The way the law is written is that’s really the state’s role. But we see an important role for public health and health protection, to look at quality control.”
What would help education efforts is more information on how legal cannabis is affecting young people, Harding said, but so far such data remains unavailable. Even in states where marijuana has been legal for a while, data is insufficient to know if young people are smoking cannabis more, Harding and others said.
Early numbers in Denver show that while there was a decrease in the number of marijuana related arrests, there were more people smoking cannabis in public areas, Harding said.
“We don’t want to replicate that,” she noted.
Joseph Nicchitta, county coordinator for the Office of Marijuana Management, agreed educating the public of the laws, of what’s legal and safe, needs to be emphasized as California rolls forward with legal cannabis use. As many Los Angeles leaders have said, yesterday’s marijuana is not today’s marijuana.
“Much of the things we’ve focused on is trying to help buyers know which businesses are licensed and which are not,” he said.
But Nicchitta said he understood there also are concerns raised about the products themselves.
“Because they’ve been illegal for so long,” he added, “we don’t have good research on what the effects are of these products.”
California voters approved Proposition 64 in 2016, allowing legalization of recreational marijuana that began Monday. The new law means anyone 21 and older will be able to legally buy marijuana in California with just an ID, but not everywhere.
The diversity of products, such as edibles, beverages, butane, and hash oil signals a change in THC concentration and genetic breeding that didn’t exist before, officials with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, said Wednesday.
A study referenced by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that marijuana potency detected in confiscated samples has steadily increased over the last few decades.
“In the early 1990s, the average THC content in confiscated cannabis samples was roughly 3.7 percent for marijuana and 7.5 percent for sinsemilla, a higher potency marijuana from specially tended female plants,” according to the study. “In 2013, it was 9.6 percent for marijuana and 16 percent for sinsemilla.”
The study also found that “eating THC-rich hash oil extracted from the marijuana plant may deliver very high levels of THC to the user.”
“These trends raise concerns that the consequences of marijuana use could be worse than in the past, particularly among new users or in young people, whose brains are still developing,” researchers concluded in the study.
That last statement is troubling to Dr. Crescenzo Pisano, medical director for Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center’s, San Pedro Recovery Center.
If young people under the age of 21 can get alcohol, he warned, then they’ll also get their hands on weed and edibles. He said a young adult’s brain is not fully developed until 25 years old.
“My concern is not that it is legal or illegal,” Pisano said of cannabis. “Even though people don’t like to hear it, it can be a gateway drug. Not only is this not the marijuana from the 60s, it’s much more intense. To me, it’s a public health concern. Who knows what’s going to happen to emergency departments. I think that will be more significant than it is now.”
Sarah Armstrong, director of industry affairs for the pro-medical marijuana group Americans for Safe Access, said she understands the concerns, and urges members of the public to educate themselves about dosages and what they can and shouldn’t consume. She said most of the new retail shops are already licensed medical marijuana dispensaries, and have a set of best practices in place.
She also said consumers should ask questions of bud tenders at the dispensaries.
“They are very carefully trained,” she said. “They don’t want people to be uncomfortable.”