As of I-502, Washington has legalized marijuana but support for research should continue.
As of I-502, Washington has legalized marijuana but support for research should continue. cyano66/Getty

A note from Dr. John M. Roll, WSU Associate Vice President for Health Sciences Research, and Dr. Dennis M. Donovan, Director UW Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute.

Washington State is well known for its discoveries and innovations. Jet airplanes, kidney dialysis machines, software, and innovations in retail services are just a few of the ways our stateā€™s inventors and entrepreneurs have made their mark. Both the University of Washington and Washington State University are critical players in scientific breakthroughs and life changing innovations, from increasing fundamental understanding of how our cells function, to developing new technologies for targeting and delivery of life-saving drugs; from identifying genes to help crops thrive in changing climate conditions, to creating green biofuels to fly those jet airplanes.

As the legislature negotiates the state budget before the end of the stateā€™s fiscal year on June 30, there are the usual pressures in how best to bring agreement between the varying proposed operating, capital, and transportation budgets. As the stateā€™s two public research universities, both the University of Washington and Washington State University depend on state funding for our primary missions of providing quality education and impactful research. The UW and WSU also provide an important service in support of key elements of I-502, the initiative that legalized marijuana. As the state works to reconcile the different budget proposals, we hope the state continues to fund and support needed public health related research to expand the understanding of cannabisā€™ impact and inform public policy moving forward.

Cannabisā€”a legal recreational drug regulated by the WashingtonĀ StateĀ LiquorĀ and CannabisĀ Boardā€”is in need of research from both the UW and WSU. The growth of the cannabis industry has exceeded expectations since the passage of I-502 and actions by the legislature to make marijuana a legal drug. The state of Washington anticipates raising approximately $730 million from sales of legalized marijuana over the next two years. According to the state Office of Financial Management, more than 60 percent of these dollars are slated to go toward public health programs, including Medicaid, substance abuse prevention efforts, and community health centers. Marijuana revenues are projected to grow by another $75 million over the next two years.

Data helps assess the potential for the cannabis industry being a significant revenue generator and growth industry. The Denver Post reported last May that revenues from the legal sale of marijuana are helping communities in that state address homelessness, send children to college, patch potholes, secure water rights, and fund an array of projects. In the first three months of 2016, Colorado marijuana retailers sold more than $270 million in cannabis and related products, according to the figures from the Colorado Department of Revenue. With additional states legalizing both medicinal and recreational use of marijuana, the industry, and in our stateā€™s case, revenue to support health care and health related research, suggests that this could be a business on the rise across this country.

This is an important funding reality for a state that grapples with meeting the many needs of this state. Initiative 502 was supported by a solid majority of the voting citizens across the state. The legislature worked with marijuana stakeholders and created new law based on the promise and premise of the Initiative. That included supporting research that would help guide the legal use of marijuana while assessing and addressing the personal and social risks that may occur with the drug. As the industry grows, the need for this research also grows.

Revenue from legalizing marijuana is currently being distributed to support an array of needed public health services as well as contributing to the stateā€™s general fund. Indeed, the citizens and legislature of our state have embraced the choice that it is advantageous to bring marijuana above ground to license it, tax it and regulate its sale and use, while ensuring that the dollars raised will support public health programs and research by our stateā€™s two research universities.

WSU and UW are both actively researching the use of marijuana and how best to provide community education on the topic. The two universities are actively collaborating with state agencies and cannabis stakeholders in research related to addiction and drug treatment. The UW is doing research to help with the prevention and treatment of abuse, marijuanaā€™s effect on the brain and what triggers marijuana use that leads to problems. WSU is developing a field-based procedure with an accurate breathalyzer for the detection of acute exposure to marijuana in various settings, including its effect on driving.

Initiative 502 envisioned the growth of the stateā€™s cannabis industry. Our state can become a leader in the cannabis industryā€”particularly in evaluating its possible risks and benefits in human health. Leadership, industry success, and ongoing research will generate new state and local tax revenue for education, health care and substance abuse prevention while improving knowledge about cannabis in general.

Both research universities are grateful to the state for the funding of research it is already conducting under the provisions of state law and distribution of marijuana-generated revenue. The UW and WSU look forward to continuing to work together in creating a regulatory climate that supports more extensive and multidisciplinary research.