Professor James Swartz

Under funding from the Illinois Department of Human Services/Division of Substance Use Prevention and Recovery (DHS/SUPR), Professor James Swartz is studying the public health impact of legalizing recreational cannabis. The study will engage in data collection, analysis, and project evaluation under the guidance of DHS/SUPR and the Adult Use Cannabis Health Advisory Committee. The overall goals are to determine the public health impacts of legalizing recreational cannabis use, and assess the implementation, efficacy, and effectiveness of substance misuse and mental health treatment and prevention programs developed as a result of Illinois’ Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act (CRTA).

Swartz says the study encompasses two broad aims. The first is to collect a large set of indicators reflecting a broad scope of public health consequences from cannabis legalization, for example, how many people are using cannabis, how many people are going to the hospital as a result of it, or whether or not cannabis use increased among youth. “But we may also see positive impacts, such as a decrease in opioid prescriptions because of increased cannabis use,” he says, “which is a trend seen in other states that legalized cannabis.” The data will be compiled into an annual report for a Health Advisory Committee that reports to the Governor and the Illinois Legislature on the effects of the CRTA.

The second aim is to evaluate the development of programs to mitigate social problems stemming from the war on drugs, then report the findings to DHS/SUPR. “When a new social program is started or an existing program expanded, we do a program evaluation to see if it works and what impact it’s having,” says Swartz. “If a program is not ready for outcome evaluation, we’ll look at what challenges and barriers the program is facing.”

Swartz and his team will evaluate several programs in communities throughout the state, with a focus that extends beyond cannabis to drug use more broadly, and even beyond behavioral health treatment. “One program is an initiative to improve housing, another is an employment initiative, so the focus is very broad,” says Swartz, “and I suspect the largest gains will be in areas such as, for example, a reduction in trauma, which is a result of violence, which itself is a result of inequities in employment opportunities and affordable housing. In these kinds of ways, the programs we’re evaluating can have a great social justice impact.”

He also cites the racial disparities in arrests and incarceration because of violations to the Cannabis Control Act. “If we just look at the arrest data for cannabis, especially in Chicago, those arrests were already trending down due to other factors,” Swartz explains, “but we see continuing arrests in marginalized communities such as Austin and West Garfield Park that did not receive cannabis dispensary licenses. So while there are still gains to be made in reducing arrests and incarceration, the major benefits of this project are likely to be in areas other than rates of incarceration.”

Project co-investigators are JACSW Assistant Professors Sara Beeler-Stinn, Katherine Bocanegra, Aaron Gottlieb and Branden McCleod.

Affirmations: Fall 2021