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The Complexities of Cannabis: Data Considerations for State Health & Human Services Agencies

Jan 29, 2020, 14:07 PM by Scott Dunn, Optum, Vice Chair HSITAG
As states consider or move forward with cannabis legalization efforts, important questions are arising for health and human services agencies. A health and human services IT workgroup has produced a white paper that studies the issues through a data and analytics lens.

Whether you’re for or against it, legal cannabis is part of the American landscape. As of June 2019, thirty-three states and Washington, DC, have passed laws legalizing cannabis in some form. Eleven of those states, as well as DC, have legalized recreational cannabis, while the rest allow limited cannabis use for medical reasons.

A range of stakeholders have expressed concerns about the effects of legal cannabis on public health and human services (HHS). That’s why the Implications of Legalized Cannabis on HHS workgroup was formed. Part of CompTIA’s Human Services IT Advisory Group (HSITAG), the workgroup’s goal was to study how new state-led cannabis efforts might impact HHS agencies, and the ways data and IT tools can help address these impacts. I was privileged to chair the workgroup.

We took no position for or against legalization. Our work focused on investigating how states can implement cannabis programs more effectively and avoid unintended public health consequences.

After months of research, we developed a white paper with recommendations to help states better position themselves to assess how legalization impacts population health, children and families, public assistance programs and more. Here’s a snapshot of some of our findings.

Take time to build key infrastructure.

Nine states legalized cannabis through a ballot initiative instead of the regular legislative process. These initiatives usually come with tight statutory deadlines that make it hard to effectively establish offices or hire and train staff. As a result, when legalization starts, state agencies often don’t have the proper support infrastructure in place, and programmatic logistics can be slow to get started.

When states move to legalize cannabis, it’s important that they have the capacity to monitor, track, and analyze legalization’s effects. Data tools and systems are important to this work, but human infrastructure is also key.

Make data sharing the norm.

We have promoted the benefits of data sharing for many years. While HHS agencies have gotten the message in areas like eligibility and claims management, the need to address data sharing issues surrounding cannabis has been relatively recent. Colorado and Washington were the first states to legalize recreational cannabis in 2014. Not only are new policy areas being explored, but some stakeholders (for example, public health departments and law enforcement) may not have shared data with each other before.

To be able to accurately assess the far-ranging effects of legalization, interagency data integration is paramount. With data sharing comes the need for robust guidelines that outline what data should be shared, how the data will be used and who should have access to it. Privacy and security protections must also be put in place to manage any sensitive or personally identifying information, like protected health records.

Gather baseline data early.

Without an accurate sense of the past, states will have a much harder time determining any future trends and impacts surrounding cannabis legalization. Collecting data and establishing baselines even before legalization takes effect is vital, because baseline data analysis and evaluations will lay the foundation for sound policymaking.

Even states that aren’t currently considering legalization should gather baseline data now. Collect data on ER visits, impaired driving and social determinants of health. Legalization may not happen for a long time or at all, but it’s always possible, and data that provides better understanding of overall population health and well-being is important in its own right.

What’s next?

The full white paper is available on the CompTIA website. Consider using it as a collateral piece in meetings with state HHS agencies, or with secretaries, commissioners or governors’ offices.

Our goal is to help make people aware of the issues. The subject of legalization is broad and could be looked at from any number of perspectives, but we determined data and analytics was an important area to consider. As state policymakers seek objective evidence about the potential benefits and risks of legalizing cannabis, high-quality data and analysis will help anticipate outcomes and inform better decision-making.