ALBANY – New York’s cannabis regulators kicked off public education efforts on Monday, focusing the first phase of a statewide media campaign on four messages: consumption of marijuana outside of the medical program is legal only for adults; those who choose to partake should smoke away from others; keep cannabis out of reach of children and pets; and refrain from driving while high.

Presenters played campaign segments at Monday’s launch event, which was hosted by the Office of Cannabis Management (OCM) with speakers from the Office of Addiction Services and Supports (OASAS) and the state Department of Health. While the ads contain only simplified directions in a typical public service tone, event speakers elaborated on the rationale behind the messages.

“We know that the illicit cannabis market has been growing,” said Dr. Chinazo Cunningham, the newly appointed OASAS commissioner. “We’ve seen candy and food infused with cannabis. We see marketing that often targets young people. And we don’t know what the content of cannabis is right now.”

Chris Alexander, the OCM’s executive director, reminded the attendees that while cannabis is legal to use, the only regulated businesses selling products in the state are those within the medical program.

Alexander echoed Cunningham’s note that the safety of unregulated cannabis being sold and gifted across the state is unknown, and that his office is working to shut down illicit operations.

But Alexander said his hope for the campaign, which his team is calling “Cannabis Conversations” – the same name as a series of public meetings held recently by Cannabis Control Board Chairwoman Tremaine Wright – is to start a genuine dialogue about the recreational industry before its first legal sales, which he expects will occur by the end of this year thanks to the state’s recently announced conditional licensing plans.

“We’ve got 100 years of stigma to undo, to reeducate the state of New York on what cannabis is, how it can be used, how it can benefit their lives, but also the risks where they exist,” Alexander said.

Allan Clear, who works in drug-user health for the state health department, said the campaign’s messages should be useful for cannabis consumers as well as those concerned for their family or friends.

“Whether you favored legalization or not, I think we can all agree, it’s important to ensure that New Yorkers have fact-based information,” Clear said, noting that research will be key as the state begins to “leave criminalization behind us and really focus on improving public health outcomes. “

It has been a year since New York passed a law decriminalizing marijuana use, but Alexander said research conducted by his office in preparation for the campaign found plenty of the state’s residents are out of the loop.

“We found that very few New Yorkers knew that we had legalized at all,” Alexander said. “That was a big problem.”

The newly launched education campaign will bring those residents up to speed, as well as focus on the four key messages selected by regulators. It will begin with public service announcements on television, radio, public transit, billboards and social media.

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