Cannabis’ Impacts on Public Health, Environment Assessed

By Willis Jacobson
Dec 29, 2020
Photo by Kym MacKinnon on Unsplash

A federally-funded organization that strives to influence cannabis policy raised a range of concerns in its annual report looking at the impacts of REC legalization on California.

The “Marijuana’s Impact on California 2020” report was released this month by the National Marijuana Initiative (NMI), a branch of the federally-backed High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) program. The HIDTA assists federal agencies in combating drug trafficking, while the NMI was developed by the HIDTA 19 years ago with the stated mission to “raise awareness of issues surrounding” cannabis to help inform policymakers and regulators.

The 2020 report looks at some of the impacts that REC legalization, which went into effect in 2018, has had in areas like teen usage, public health and the environment. Though it does not make any formal policy recommendations, the report highlights several areas of concern:



Several San Diego professionals, including from the medical and drug treatment fields, raised alarms concerning the effects of cannabis consumption on teenagers. Much of the data they shared during a virtual press event this month involved San Diego County.

  • The report found that California youth, as compared to youth nationally, continue to have a lowered perception of the risk of smoking cannabis. California residents ages 12 and older also have a higher rate of past-month marijuana use than their national peers. Both trends have held for much of the past decade.
  • Even with those trends, the report found that California’s 7th, 9th, and 11th graders continue to report decreases in past-month cannabis use.
  • Cannabis use is prevalent among youth in juvenile detention centers, according to speakers at the San Diego press event. Statewide, 41% of marijuana treatment admissions in 2019 involved clients ages 12 to 17, according to the report.
  • The report found that drug-related suspensions continue to rise in California public schools, and that drugs continue to be the primary reason for school expulsions. 
  • The yet-to-be-formed Department of Cannabis Control – the state’s planned lead regulatory agency, post-consolidation – “needs to be an active partner in conducting proactive prevention efforts aimed at youth,” said David King, director of the San Diego/Imperial County HIDTA.


Public Health

The report identified sharp increases in the rates of “marijuana-related” medical visits and emergency calls throughout the state. 

  • Emergency room visits and admissions for “related marijuana use” jumped by 89% – from 125,418 to 236,954 – from 2016 to 2019.
  • Emergency calls due to CBD exposure in California went from three in 2014 to 1,526 in 2019.
  • Vaping and nicotine exposure calls went from 269 in 2011 to 5,335 in 2019, an increase of 1,883%.
  • Nearly half – 48% – of vaping-associated lung injury cases in California from August 2019 to July 2020 involved a THC-containing product.

Environmental impacts

The report also laid out problematic impacts of cannabis cultivation on the environment.

  • The report states that “new research” estimates that each cannabis plant needs 900 gallons of water per season. This thirst leads farmers to divert water from its natural course, drying up native streams.
  • Researchers estimate that more than 1.4M pounds of fertilizer and toxicants is used annually at cannabis grow sites in California. The use of certain chemicals kills wildlife, the report states.
  • Other environmental harms the report lists as common to marijuana grows, particularly illegal sites, are “deforestation, and the prevalence of trash, irrigation tubing, and other human refuse.”
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