Uncharted Territory: A Q&A with Julie Johnson, PhD’15, Inaugural Research Director for the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission

May 31, 2018

In November 2016, Massachusetts passed a ballot measure legalizing the recreational use and sale of marijuana for adults. The first state-sanctioned adult-use pot shops are set to begin selling cannabis this summer. The Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) recently hired Heller alumna Julie Johnson, PhD’15, as its inaugural research director. Heller spoke with Johnson about the path that brought her to this position and the exciting road ahead for this growing field of policy research.

outstretched hand holding marijuana in palm

Let’s start at the beginning. What brought you to the Heller PhD program, and the behavioral health concentration, specifically?

I came to Heller to understand the epidemiology, as well as the complex interaction of personal characteristics and interpersonal environmental factors associated with adolescent substance use and mental health disorders. At 15, I lost my older brother to suicide after his long-fought battle with depression and years of self-medication with alcohol and drugs. His death motivated me to de-stigmatize substance use and mental health disorders and to educate others that these issues can and do affect everyone—even popular, athletic, handsome recent high school graduates with their whole lives ahead of them, like Jeffrey.

After college I secured three years of clinical research training at Boston Children’s Hospital’s Center of Adolescent Substance Abuse Research. One of my mentors there introduced me to Constance Horgan, director of Heller’s Institute for Behavioral Health. 

When I started the Heller PhD program, in 2010, I wasn’t really sure where my academic journey would take me, but I wanted the training to become an independent researcher one day. I wanted to conduct research that would improve our collective understanding of adolescent substance use, to help prevent it. Little did I know that I would become fascinated with intellectual “gray areas” like our country’s rapidly changing marijuana laws, and their effects on adolescent behavior and society at large. It’s a constantly evolving landscape—a real-time quasi-experiment unfolding right in front of us.

Julie Johnson, PhD'15

Can you briefly describe your dissertation research, and the work you've done since graduating from Heller?

Yeah, absolutely! I did a monograph dissertation using data from 45 states to study the effects of the changing medical marijuana laws on adolescents’ marijuana and alcohol use. It was a quasi-experimental, difference-in-difference study using logistic regression methods. I literally had my first child the day after graduation (great timing) but my grant funding allowed me to work at home flexibly with my young daughter and turn my dissertation into conference presentations and two published papers.

During one of those conferences I met Renee M. Johnson, Director of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Drug Dependence Epidemiology Training Program, who encouraged me to apply for a postdoctoral position. That fall, I started my postdoc at Johns Hopkins and continued my work on medical marijuana laws.

More recently, I became a steering committee member of Duxbury FACTS, a community coalition addressing youth health and mental health issues, including substance use/abuse prevention. Going back out to the community, I learned that my enthusiasm is not just studying marijuana laws and writing for peer-review journals, but being on the ground level, talking to communities, and more comprehensively and practically studying the effects of cannabis laws in my home state.

What made you decide to apply for the research director position at Massachusetts CCC?

I fully believe that life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans. I was interviewing for academic positions when a mentor, GOSNOLD’s Raymond Tamasi, emailed me that the Cannabis Control Commission was hiring a director of research and that he’d sent my CV to one the commissioners. I stewed on it for days, but after briefly talking to Commissioner Jennifer Flanagan, a fellow public health advocate, who formerly served on numerous legislative committees focusing on public health and substance misuse while in the state Senate—I knew I needed to apply and that if I was lucky enough to get an offer, I would be enthusiastic and grateful to take on this role. 

Maybe someday I’ll go back to academia, but right now, I think I’m exactly where I’m meant to be professionally.  I started just a month ago and although the public role learning curve is steep, being able to use my training to implement the research agenda here at the Massachusetts CCC in real time is exciting. Even more importantly, using my training to possibly make a difference is beyond rewarding. This job is exactly what I’ve always wanted, but never knew I wanted to do. 

What do you hope to accomplish at the Massachusetts CCC?

We’re lucky here; Massachusetts is an epicenter of renowned research institutions with local experts in many issues that pertain to cannabis, including substance use, abuse, and treatment, drug policy, and medicinal cannabis.

It’s an ideal environment to start the many ongoing research projects that will add to our nascent understanding of cannabis and these varying laws’ effects on society. I’m ready to go where the data leads us.  At the end of the day, I’m a researcher.

That said, we have a quite comprehensive research agenda as mandated by Chapter 55’s Section 17 "An Act to Ensure Safe Access to Marijuana. ” It will be no easy feat, but we have and are continuously building a great team here, and I am hopeful that we will do this work as comprehensively as possible.

The research agenda includes looking at the effects these laws will have on how people purchase, consume, and use marijuana, and their perceptions towards cannabis. We will research the economic impacts on state and local revenue and governments, the state health care system, and any changes to the illicit marketplace. We will also collect data on hospitalizations, impaired driving and school discipline related to marijuana. And, we will look at the marijuana industry itself to examine who is participating in the new, legal industry and the illicit drug marketplace.

In research, the hardest battle is often getting the right data. Right now I am building partnerships with other state agencies and academic institutions to secure the data we need to do the research as efficiently as possible, even while these cannabis policies are implemented and possibly amended. We need to have baseline data and then continue to monitor the effects of these policies with valid, reliable measures.

Additionally, we’re also adding some agenda items: we hope to partner with municipalities to implement these laws—with an emphasis on workforce equity, public health, and public safety. We hope these partnerships will help prevent unsafe marijuana use, reduce the illicit market, and protect still-developing adolescents through prevention, public awareness, and education. 

How do you anticipate existing research from other states (or countries) will influence your work?

I came to the Cannabis Control Commission as a self-admitted rookie to the legal aspects of this process. I can only speak for myself, but I think reversing marijuana prohibition and implementing laws to regulate a product that is still illegal according to federal law is a huge learning curve for any state or jurisdiction.

We can learn a lot from states that enacted and implemented very similar policies before us, including Colorado, Washington and Oregon. From a research perspective, I want to learn from other states’ research directors and analysts about what to expect and how to most efficiently implement a comprehensive research agenda in an evolving policy environment. Theoretically, it is easier to be aware of the problems other states have dealt with and I know I am grateful for any input and guidance. It doesn’t hurt to be prepared and to avoid recreating the wheel if we don’t have to.

What do you see as the highest priority research questions for Massachusetts as the state enters this new period of marijuana legalization?

I think all the questions we are tasked with are vitally important to provide Massachusetts’s constituents the most comprehensive a picture of our cannabis policies as possible. Although I am treating all research agenda items with the same time and dedication, given my training, I do believe that assessing the public health and public safety impacts—especially effects on adolescent use, abuse, and treatment admissions—are one of the more significant priorities for the long-term.