First director of UMN Cannabis Research Center on studying the impact of marijuana legalization in Minnesota

Traci Toomey
Public Health Professor Traci Toomey is the first director of the new Cannabis Research Center at the U of M's School of Public Health.
Dan Olson | MPR News 2010

Nearly half of states in the nation now allow recreational cannabis use. Minnesota became one of the latest to legalize with the passage of House File 100 earlier this year. The law included two and a half million dollars for the University of Minnesota to study the impact of legalization.

The University of Minnesota announced the launch of its new Cannabis Research Center in the School of Public Health Thursday morning. Its first director, Public Health Professor Traci Toomey, joined MPR News guest host Catharine Richert with more.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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Audio transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] CATHARINE RICHERT: You're listening to Minnesota Now. I'm Catharine Richert filling in for Cathy Wurzer. Nearly half of states in the nation allow recreational cannabis use. Minnesota became one of the latest to legalize with the passage of House File 100 earlier this year. The law included $2.5 million for the University of Minnesota to study the impact of legalization.

The UMN announced the launch of its new cannabis Research Center in the School of Public Health just a few hours ago. Its first director public health professor Traci Toomey is on the line. Thanks for being with us, Traci.

TRACI TOOMEY: Thank you so much for having me here today.

CATHARINE RICHERT: So start by explaining how this research center will function. Who will be doing the work?

TRACI TOOMEY: So, as you mentioned, I will be leading the center. And it will involve other faculty members from the School of Public Health as well as staff members. And we will be building collaborations with other people in the university, other researchers at the University of Minnesota as well as hopefully state agencies, local agencies, and organizations and really people throughout Minnesota to figure out what are the most important questions around cannabis that Minnesota has. And then we hope to answer those questions. And our goal is really to be a trustworthy source of information about cannabis in our state.

CATHARINE RICHERT: So I feel when I hear the word research, I feel like there are maybe like two buckets. So one would be, how is legalization affecting the population? And then the other one might be, how is it affecting individuals? Like, what's the impact on bodies? What sorts of research questions do you envision trying to answer?

TRACI TOOMEY: I think we will be primarily focusing on the effect of legalization of cannabis on communities and populations. In the School of Public Health, we focus on population health. That said, as we partner with people maybe in the Medical School or the School of Nursing, we may answer questions that are more specific to the effect of cannabis on individuals. But again, the center our primary focus will be the public health implications of the legalization of this substance.

CATHARINE RICHERT: And when you say public health, do you also include mental health in that as well?

TRACI TOOMEY: Certainly, and there are concerns, some concerns that have been raised by some researchers about the effect of cannabis particularly among heavy users on mental health. And so certainly, we're concerned about both physical health as well as mental health.

CATHARINE RICHERT: So one of the research areas listed on the website is equity issues. And I'm quoting from your website production, sales, marketing, and use. What are some of the key questions there to you?

TRACI TOOMEY: Well, we have had certain parts of our population that have been disproportionately negatively affected by previous cannabis laws. And so we want to make sure that as Minnesota implements the new cannabis laws that we want to look at everyone's health and everyone's economic outcomes. And so we want to make sure that-- one of the goals of the state's legislation was to really make it better for everyone and to make up for some of the problems that were caused to some communities by previous laws.

And so we want to do research just to make sure that that's in fact happening, that the policy is fairly implemented, that communities that were supposed to benefit from this new legalized substance, in fact, do benefit by that change.

And that what we see sometimes happen with other substances like alcohol and tobacco is that sometimes some communities are disproportionately targeted by marketing or maybe they have more of the stores or dispensaries in their neighborhood because some people want to buy the products, but they don't want those stores in their neighborhood. And so we want to make sure that we look at the marketing is fair, that the distribution of the outlets is fairly distributed across our state.

CATHARINE RICHERT: So, will you be reporting to the legislature on your findings?

TRACI TOOMEY: We sure hope we will be doing that. We plan to do that. As we do research, we want to make sure that we get the information out there to the public as well as to elected officials both at the state level and the local level and to state and local agencies.

CATHARINE RICHERT: So going back to the type of research questions that you'll be posing, are there particular age groups or populations that you think are important to focus on as well?

TRACI TOOMEY: Yes, I think, it's going to be really important to look at the effect of the change in the law on underage people. Minnesota has made it illegal for those under the age of 21 to use or purchase or for adults to sell or provide cannabis to them. And there's real concerns around underage people using cannabis just as we have concerns around them using alcohol and tobacco and other substances.

For young people, their brain is still developing. And so there's some concerns about the effects of cannabis on brain development. And the earlier people start using, there's some concern that they may be more likely to develop a cannabis use disorder later in their life. And so we want to make sure that as we start to sell cannabis in the state fully sell it that we're not seeing sales to underage people. And again, that we're not seeing adults illegally providing cannabis to underage people.

And then there's some concerns about other age groups as well. For example, it may be that people who are a little older may start to use cannabis because maybe they want to see if it will help them sleep better. And we'll want to look at the potential interaction with other drugs and make sure that people aren't at risk of falling or having some other problems as a result of using cannabis.

CATHARINE RICHERT: We have about a minute and a half left, but I understand that you have done your own research previously on cannabis policy. Are there any questions that you personally are very interested in?

TRACI TOOMEY: Yes. And I've done a lot of research around alcohol. And I think that there are many similar questions that we can ask around cannabis.

So one, again, is making sure that we are [INAUDIBLE] how to protect underage people, making sure that we look at-- making sure that the dispensaries and stores that are selling cannabis products are following the law, making sure that, again, that we make sure that stores and dispensaries are equally distributed across our communities.

Those are some of the same questions that we had asked around alcohol and that some of us have done looking at cannabis in other states. And overall, looking at the effects on various health outcomes like traffic crashes, emergency room visits, those are all the types of research questions that we expect to answer.

CATHARINE RICHERT: Wonderful. Well, Traci Toomey is a professor with the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health and the first director of the Use New Cannabis Research Center just announced this morning. Thank you so much, Traci.

TRACI TOOMEY: Thank you so much.

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