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One of the highlights of adult-use legalization in New Mexico is the inclusion of public consumption areas. Pot bars will easily become tourist hotspots once the market opens next year. But how will they be implemented? And is secondhand cannabis even safe to be around?

An Issue For the Future

Ever since New Mexico legalized adult-use cannabis, debates have been firing off around zoning regulations, drugged driving, water rights and inclusive policies. But regulators, entrepreneurs and advocates have so far largely ignored the topic of public consumption areas. As more pressing issues become settled and the air has cleared some, this will likely become a hot topic when pot bars start looking to set up for business.

The Cannabis Regulation Act is one of the most progressive pieces of marijuana legislation to be passed in the nation. It legalizes the creation of cannabis consumption areas that will allow consumers to use marijuana in places other than their home. This is absolutely necessary to give pot tourists a place to legally consume the products that they purchase and could potentially deter illegal use in public areas.

But municipal and state leaders seem reluctant to charge ahead with regulations regarding the topic. For the time being, they understandably seem busy enough with more immediate concerns like projected shortages and zoning policies.

But once the discussion starts, it’s likely that we’ll find ourselves in alien territory. No state has successfully implemented public cannabis consumption areas, and New Mexico is set to make history.

New Frontier

Consumption areas will probably present a number of safety concerns for the anti-legalization crowd. We’ll likely hear the same fears that were presented when the CRA was moving through the Roundhouse: Crime could spike, children could be exposed, drugged driving incidents could increase, et cetera.

Almost assuredly, the issue of secondhand marijuana smoke will arise. While many municipalities will be zoning cannabis businesses away from areas like schools, daycares or even churches and residential homes, New Mexico’s strong desert winds are bound to waft some of the scent of marijuana smoke into areas where citizens might complain, and anyone looking to scale back pot operations in their city will probably be taking some deep breaths as they move about town. The odor of cannabis smoke may indeed be offensive to some noses, but is it actually dangerous?

Secondhand Dangers

Much of the fear around cannabis smoke comes from what we know about tobacco smoke. According to the 2014 Surgeon General’s report, 2.5 million nonsmokers reportedly died from secondhand tobacco smoke since 1964. The clear relationship between secondhand smoke and health risks changed the face of America, causing states and municipalities to ban indoor smoking in many places.

The American Lung Association makes it pretty clear: “Smoke is smoke. When you burn something, it releases dangerous chemicals, and marijuana is no different.” The group compares smoking cannabis to smoking cigarettes, but the truth is that smoke isn’t always “smoke.” Despite sharing many of the same chemicals and characteristics, tobacco and cannabis smoke appear to have very different effects on lung health.

According to a study published in Annals of the American Thoracic Society, cannabis users who smoked one joint a day showed no statistical difference in exhalation tests compared to non-smokers. And a 2012 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that low to moderate, long-term marijuana users displayed an increased lung capacity compared to nonsmokers.

Most astonishingly, a 2014 study in the International Journal of Cancer found that, although smoking pot produced tar, there was no evidence that it increased long-term users’ risk of lung cancer. That’s quite different from the effects of cigarette smoke, and comparing the two is bound to produce faulty advice.

Meanwhile, In The Real World

The most compelling argument that secondhand cannabis smoke will likely not harm or affect pot club passersby comes from the most practical of data sources—namely, drug tests.

According to Quest Diagnostics, one of the leading clinical labs offering drug testing services to various public and private companies, there is no evidence that being around secondhand cannabis smoke will result in a failed drug test. In a blog post, the company’s Senior Director of Science and Technology Barry Sample said, “There are no published, peer-reviewed studies to date that indicate, even with today’s increased concentrations of THC in marijuana, that someone would test positive due to ‘passive’ or ‘incidental’ exposure at events such as parties or concerts.”

The National Institute on Drug Abuse cites a Journal of Analytical Toxicology study that found that it took over an hour of exposure to cannabis smoke in an unventilated room for a nonsmoker to test positive for THC in a urine test. And that positive result only lasted for a few hours—a far cry from the days to months it takes for even a casual user to test negative. A follow-up study found that participants reported mild subjective effects from the contact and displayed mild impairments on performance in motor tasks. Comparable tests with participants in ventilated rooms up to three hours tested negative for the presence of THC and did not report experiencing any psychoactive effects.

It would seem that “contact high” is a real thing after all—but only in confined spaces with little-to-no ventilation. It also appears to be only mildly effective and short-lived. This is good news for all those hot-boxers out there who like to smoke in sealed closets or use novelty gas mask bongs.

But it’s also good news for anyone who is worried that a passing sniff of cannabis smoke will cause them any harm or make them high. And it’s great news for officials who are worried about endangering their constituents while providing needed facilities for tourists. They can sleep soundly knowing that being offended by a smell is not the same as being poisoned by a toxic substance.

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