The Effects of Medical Marijuana Laws on Potency

Published in: International Journal of Drug Policy, v. 25, no. 2, Mar. 2014, p. 308-319

Posted on RAND.org on March 01, 2014

by Eric Sevigny, Rosalie Liccardo Pacula, Paul Heaton

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BACKGROUND: Marijuana potency has risen dramatically over the past two decades. In the United States, it is unclear whether state medical marijuana policies have contributed to this increase. METHODS: Employing a differences-in-differences model within a mediation framework, we analyzed data on n = 39,157 marijuana samples seized by law enforcement in 51 U.S. jurisdictions between 1990 and 2010, producing estimates of the direct and indirect effects of state medical marijuana laws on potency, as measured by Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol content. RESULTS: We found evidence that potency increased by a half percentage point on average after legalization of medical marijuana, although this result was not significant. When we examined specific medical marijuana supply provisions, results suggest that legal allowances for retail dispensaries had the strongest influence, significantly increasing potency by about one percentage point on average. Our mediation analyses examining the mechanisms through which medical marijuana laws influence potency found no evidence of direct regulatory impact. Rather, the results suggest that the impact of these laws occurs predominantly through a compositional shift in the share of the market captured by high-potency sinsemilla. CONCLUSION: Our findings have important implications for policymakers and those in the scientific community trying to understand the extent to which greater availability of higher potency marijuana increases the risk of negative public health outcomes, such as drugged driving and drug-induced psychoses. Future work should reconsider the impact of medical marijuana laws on health outcomes in light of dramatic and ongoing shifts in both marijuana potency and the medical marijuana policy environment.

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