The federal government is preparing to conduct a three-year pilot study that will use sewage samples to check levels of marijuana use in two cities in Washington State, all with the hope that the research will help provide answers to what the government considers important questions about cannabis legalization.
According to an article in Yahoo, the University of Puget Sound announced that The National Institutes of Health agreed to pay $120,000 so associate chemistry professor Dan Burgard can conduct the study, which will focus on how per-capita pot use changed after Washington’s first legal pot shops opened last year.
The research was first used by scientists in Italy a decade ago and involves analyzing wastewater samples for levels of metabolites produced when the body processes drugs. In fact, Burgard has used the process in the past. He analyzed campus wastewater to determine whether students were using more “study drugs” such as Ritalin and Adderal during mid-terms and finals. In one finals period, he found an eight-fold increase over those stimulant levels compared to the first week of school.
A few months after Washington state voters passed legalization in 2012, Burgard started collecting information on marijuana. The new study will help determine whether the opening of pot shops lead to an increase in marijuana use within a given community. Burgard will compare data from the wastewater to what people have said in surveys about their marijuana use and will also attempt to figure out whether weekday or weekend marijuana use has gone up.
Burgard explained, “We’re trying to get a sense of the type of user. If there’s more use on the weekends, maybe that’s more recreational. But if Sunday to Thursday use goes up as much, that might be a public health concern, with habitual users using a lot more.”
According to the Yahoo article, the study may also be able to determine how much of the black market is being affected by the state’s legal stores. Burgard plans to do this by comparing the wastewater data with the state’s close tracking of marijuana sales. If sales figures continue to rise, but the wastewater levels show that overall pot use is flat, that would mean that people are getting their marijuana at legal stores instead of on the black market. But if sales go up and the sewer data also shows a rise in pot use , that could mean that people are still buying on the black market and that legalization has increased overall use in the state without really getting rid of the black market.
No word on which two cities in Washington are being tested. Burgard won’t announce them until the testing is done.