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What changed in Colorado after the legalization of cannabis? And what can Canada learn from that?

We may never fully know, at least not to the highly detailed level that policy makers prefer.

“One thing that I think we’ve seen is that we have very bad data when it comes to impaired driving” caused by cannabis and other drugs rather than alcohol, said Jack Reed, statistical analyst at the Office of Research and Statistics, Colorado Division of Criminal Justice.

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That’s just one example.

Because cannabis legalization, like any major policy change, can touch so many corners of public life, data collection and analysis must keep pace. But in determining what has changed, say, in Colorado, the problem has been insufficient data about cannabis use – more specifically, data prior to legalization. And without that, before-and-after comparisons can be blurry.

So, officials and regulators are arguing that one thing they’ve learned – whether studying legalization in other jurisdictions or similar public-health policies such as those governing tobacco or alcohol – is that data is intensely needed.

“The challenges from Day One were that much of the data did not exist. So we ended up really trying to play catch up in so many areas,” Mr. Reed said as part of a symposium this week at The Globe and Mail in Toronto on the potential outcomes of cannabis legalization in Canada.

As another example, Mr. Reed noted that Colorado did not previously collect data on children expelled from school for cannabis use (only for drug use in general). Data on people seeking treatment for marijuana use was more thorough, though, and has actually shown a decrease, he said.

The consensus among the symposium’s guest speakers was that although the Canadian government has said with crystal clarity that legalization is a public-health issue, policy officials, especially local ones, also see issues with public housing, retail licensing, commercial zoning, public education and maybe even tourism.

And so, because legalization touches so many facets of life, “we need to compare that to how we are responding to the information out there, and how we tailor our education, our policies. We need to keep calibrating [our] response to the data,” said Sudha Sabanadesan, policy development officer at Toronto Public Health.

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Neighbourhoods, for instance, won’t want to have too many cannabis retail outlets or, conceivably, BYOB (bring you own bong) lounges, so the commercial density of cannabis outlets and hours of operation must be decided. “There is always a push and pull between commercialization and prohibition-type policies, and finding that sweet spot where harm is at a minimum,” Ms. Sabanadesan said, adding that the underlying goal is to prevent “problematic use.”

Public housing, though, is an area in which issues surrounding cannabis use are already very much present, noted Celia Chandler, a partner at the law firm Iler Campbell LLP who specializes in housing and human rights.

The right to use cannabis doesn’t necessarily mean the right to smoke in a way that infringes on neighbours. Here again, data on tobacco-smoking legislation can help in balancing individual rights against the impact on the broader community, in order to tweak policy and regulation as needed.

Beyond the data lies the policy objective.

Eric Costen, director general of the federal government’s Strategic Policy Directorate, Cannabis Legalization and Regulation Branch, noted that legalization in Nevada, for instance, was all about taxation, very different from Ottawa’s public-health goals. Conceivably then, the effectiveness of data depends on its use. In Nevada, it is through the lens of revenue generation, at least in terms of the state’s overarching policy.

In Canada, public discourse has revolved around the growth of the cannabis industry, even if the initial policy impetus has been public health. With these conversations happening simultaneously, regulatory oversight and effective data are needed all the more, the panellists suggested.

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“One of the really early messages we got from the U.S. was that the integrity of your new rules is going to be really based on your ability to enforce them,” Mr. Costen said, arguing that interaction between levels of government can be a strength rather a weakness in administering legalization, which is coming Oct. 17.

“One of the rare areas of consensus on the cannabis file is on the need for public education. So, this is an area we’ve really focused on,” he said. Among the topics are impaired driving, transporting cannabis across borders and messages targeting youth and parents, he said.

Indeed, he said, health warnings must make it clear that treating cannabis as a public-health issue does not mean endorsing the recreational use of the drug. Back in Colorado, top-level officials appointed by the governor meet regularly to discuss the cannabis impact from regulatory, public health and safety perspectives. “We’re still responding to those,” Mr. Reed said.

As Mr. Costen acknowledged, “some of the issues are very challenging, very complex. They need constant attention.”

“Data, data, data. Monitor, monitor, monitor. The U.S. state guys were really important, coming in and saying that they did not have [the data] to make a clear determination on what was working and what was not working.

"So, that’s a lesson we took to heart.”

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