November 4, 2015


(NOVEMBER 4, 2015) – The O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown Law, in collaboration with the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), has received a $250,000 grant from the Open Philanthropy Project to help develop guidelines on how states, countries, and other jurisdictions that opt to legalize cannabis for medical or recreational purposes can create regulatory frameworks, consistent with the goals of legalization, that will work effectively to protect and promote the public health.

“Now is an opportune time to develop regulatory approaches and guidelines that can prevent unnecessary public health harms from the legalization of medical or recreational cannabis while maximizing the potential public health benefits,” says the project’s lead investigator, Oscar Cabrera, Abogado (JD equivalent), LL.M., executive director of the O’Neill Institute. “With new ballot questions and legislation pending, it is especially important, now, to avoid elements that will unnecessarily create health risks or fail to secure potential benefits and likely be harder to fix after they are in place.”

Cabrera says the purpose of the project is not to advocate for or against legalizing cannabis, but rather to inform deliberations over the design and implementation of the laws and regulations governing legalized cannabis products with guidance from relevant experts in public health policy and law, both in the United States and abroad.

The Open Philanthropy Project is a collaboration between the philanthropic foundation Good Ventures and the nonprofit GiveWell in which they aim to identify outstanding giving opportunities, make grants, follow the results and publish their findings.

The project between the O’Neill Institute and WOLA complements this mission.

“Whether or not one agrees with cannabis legalization, it is already happening in several U.S. states and in the country of Uruguay, and appears likely to spread to more jurisdictions,” explains John Walsh, Senior Associate at WOLA, a leading research and advocacy organization advancing human rights in the Americas. “Different jurisdictions are likely to make different choices about exactly how to legalize, but it is crucial to engage the public health community in identifying strategies that can minimize possible public health harms and maximize public health gains.”

In addition to looking at available research and the experience of those jurisdictions that have already legalized cannabis for medical or recreational purposes, the organizations’ leaders say they will also draw from the public health community’s considerable experience relating to the regulation of other products, such as tobacco, alcohol and both over-the-counter and prescription drugs.

“It makes good sense to assess what lessons from tobacco and alcohol control – both positive and negative – should be taken into account when designing regulations for legalized cannabis,” Cabrera adds. “But until now, public health officials largely have been on the sidelines of this issue.”

The O’Neill-WOLA collaboration brings the public health aspects of cannabis legalization to the forefront and seeks to generate more participation in the issue from public health experts and organizations. WOLA has a long history in the field of drug policy reform with a particular focus on human rights protections. The O’Neill Institute brings great expertise and stature in the field of public health law and policy. Both organizations have broad access to scholars, practitioners, activists, and government officials.

About WOLA

WOLA is a leading research and advocacy organization advancing human rights in the Americas. WOLA envisions a future where public policies in the Americas protect human rights and recognize human dignity, and where justice overcomes violence. WOLA tackles problems that transcend borders and that require both domestic and international solutions. Through strategic collaborations, we partner with courageous people working on social change -advocacy organizations, academics, religious leaders, artists, entrepreneurs, and government officials—and together, we advocate for more just societies in the Americas.

The O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University is the premier center for health law, scholarship, and policy. Its mission is to contribute to a more powerful and deeper understanding of the multiple ways in which law can be used to improve the public’s health, using objective evidence as a measure. The O’Neill Institute seeks to advance scholarship, science, research, and teaching that will encourage key decision-makers in the public, private, and civil society to employ the law as a positive tool for enabling more people in the United States and throughout the world to lead healthier lives.


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