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Georgetown University — Public Health and Cannabis Legalization

Organization Name 
Award Date 
8/2015
Grant Amount 
$250,000
Purpose 
To support research on regulations aimed at optimizing the public health impact of cannabis legalization.
Topic (focus area) 

Published: September 2015

Staff at the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) reviewed this page prior to publication.

Note: This page was created using content published by Good Ventures and GiveWell, the organizations that created the Open Philanthropy Project, before this website was launched. Uses of “we” and “our” on this page may therefore refer to Good Ventures or GiveWell, but they still represent the work of the Open Philanthropy Project.

Cannabis legalization efforts are proceeding quickly,1 and we expect some form of legalization for recreational and/or medicinal purposes to occur in many more states and countries in the coming years. These ongoing legalization efforts may create opportunities to shape the path of legalization in the short term (e.g. by influencing ballot initiative language), and they may also have significant long-term effects due to path dependence (e.g., the emergence of commercial cannabis systems may be hard to reverse, or early state models may be adopted more widely). Our tentative guess is that effective regulation of legal recreational and medical cannabis could maximize related public health gains and prevent significant public health harms and costs that might come about in ineffectively regulated commercial markets.2

Based on these considerations, the Open Philanthropy Project asked Graham Boyd, a consultant who previously worked as an advisor on cannabis policy issues to the late philanthropist Peter Lewis, to seek out opportunities to mitigate potential negative public health consequences (and maximize potential public health benefits) of recreational cannabis legalization efforts. Boyd worked with the O’Neill Institute for National & Global Health Law at Georgetown University and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) to develop a proposal for this project. We received permission to share the following key staff bios and a redacted version of the proposal that they submitted:3

The proposal requested $326,000, roughly $50,000 of which would go to hard costs (e.g. for materials and travel) while the remaining ~$276,000 would go to staff costs ($87K for WOLA, $182K for O’Neill).4

The basic plan for the project is to consult with leading public health experts and key individuals involved in cannabis legalization initiatives to develop and disseminate a stronger understanding of what sorts of regulations might minimize adverse public health impacts and maximize public health gains from legalization and how those might be incorporated into legalization efforts.

We believe that the project will be able to secure extensive participation from public health leaders and the key individuals involved with legalization because of the connections and stature of WOLA, O’Neill, and Mr. Boyd.

Project staff told us that their goals are to:

  • develop options for regulating cannabis legalization in ways that will both achieve the goals of legalization and best protect and promote public health.
  • both directly and indirectly (through press coverage and the publication of various materials) inform legalization advocates, policymakers, and regulators about possible ways to minimize public health risks and maximize public health gains from legalization.
  • legitimize cannabis legalization as a topic of inquiry and action in public health policy circles and with other funders of public health policy advocacy and research.

Our understanding from WOLA and O’Neill staff is that there have been no previous concerted efforts to consult with public health experts and cannabis legalization advocates to develop and disseminate “best practices” for regulation, and that no other funders have expressed a particular interest to date in the nexus between public health and recreational cannabis legalization efforts. However, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington State and WOLA recently hosted a workshop in Seattle and Spokane that brought together many of the relevant regulators and scholars to study the progress of legalization to date and to lay the groundwork for further evaluations. This suggests that there is at least some existing capacity devoted to advancing similar goals.

Based on these considerations, the Open Philanthropy Project decided to make a grant of $250,000 to Georgetown University to support a joint project on public health and cannabis regulation between the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University and the Washington Office on Latin America. We opted for $250,000 rather than the requested $326,000 because we would like to see the project solicit involvement from other funders, though if it is unable to find other funders, not all of the envisioned work may be completed.

At the end of the project, we expect to post an update on its outputs and anything we are able to learn about its impact.

Read more:

  • Project Concept Note
  • Background Information on the O’Neill Institute, WOLA, and Key Staff
  • Washington Office on Latin America Website
  • O’Neill Institute for National & Global Health Law Website
  • Document Source
    Caulkins et al. 2015 Source (archive)
    GiveWell’s back of the envelope calculation of the cost (in DALYs) of marijuana commercialization Source
    GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of conversations with Gara LaMarche on May 22, May 31, and June 14, 2013 Source
    GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of conversations with Mark Schmitt on May 22 and June 14, 2013 Source
    O’Neill WOLA Background on the O’Neill Institute, WOLA, and Key Staff Source
    O’Neill WOLA Detailed Budget Unpublished
    O’Neill WOLA Regulated Cannabis and Public Health Project Concept Note 2-2-15 Unpublished
    O’Neill WOLA Regulated Cannabis and Public Health Project Concept Note 6-13-15 Source
    • 1.
      • GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of conversations with Mark Schmitt on May 22 and June 14, 2013: “The effort to legalize marijuana is an interesting example of what a five year philanthropic advocacy effort can look like. While it may be too early to tell how it will end, it’s interesting that things changed so suddenly after decades of stagnant attitudes. George Soros funded some legalization advocacy groups and helped them grow in the 1990s. Ethan Nadelmann at the Drug Policy Alliance would be a good source for understanding where the philanthropic funding has mattered most. It would be interesting to know if anyone actually picked out Colorado and Washington ahead of time when predicting breakthroughs.”
      • GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of conversations with Gara LaMarche on May 22, May 31, and June 14, 2013: “Drug policy has become more of a mainstream issue in recent years. When George Soros started the Drug Policy Institute as a think tank in the 1990s, it was the only significant organization working on this issue. It was a controversial area to work on and policy change seemed far off. Medical marijuana has changed the face of the issue somewhat. The feeling toward drug policy among communities of color has changed because of the war on drugs and the resulting high number of black men going to prison for marijuana offenses.”
    • 2.

      See, e.g., Caulkins et al. 2015, a report by Caulkins and others to the Vermont legislature on options for marijuana legalization, funded by Good Ventures.

      In our back of the envelope calculation, we estimate that commercialization of marijuana may cost something like 60,000 disability-adjusted life years per year
      in the US.

    • 3.

      Project staff expressed concern that sharing the full text of the proposal they submitted prior to completion of the project might interfere with some of the project goals, so we agreed to publish it after the completion of the project.

    • 4.

      O’Neill WOLA Detailed Budget