Informing the public about the risks of cannabis

A new NIH grant will help MU researcher Zachary Massey research how to effectively warn the public about health effects of cannabis by determining the most effective use of health warning labels on cannabis products.

zachary massey
Zachary Massey

Dec. 14, 2023
Contact: Pate McCuien, 573-882-4870,

COLUMBIA, MISSOURI – The marijuana and cannabis industry is booming. In fact, industry research group New Frontier Data projects that annual sales will exceed $72 billion by 2030. As the culture around cannabis expands, one University of Missouri researcher is working to ensure recreational users, or non-medicinal users, are aware of the possible risks of use.  

Despite being legal in many states, cannabis is still classified as an illegal substance by the federal government. This means regulations for warning consumers are left to each state to decide. Additionally, due to a lack of significant research on the impacts of the substance on the body, public polling has shown that people in the US often overestimate the drug’s therapeutic effects and underestimate its negative effects.

MU communications expert Zachary Massey is stepping up to use his expertise to help clear confusion. Massey recently secured a groundbreaking five-year grant of more than $800,000 from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), — the largest ever awarded to a Missouri School of Journalism professor by the NIH.

“The warning messaging on the cannabis products varies widely from state to state, and my suspicion is that this is adding to misperceptions,” Massey said. “Warning labels in, say, Alaska, could present a completely different set of risks than the warning labels in Oklahoma. The ultimate goal is to determine the best way to communicate the risks of cannabis identify the best strategies for warning people about the risks of use.”

Massey, an assistant professor at the Missouri School of Journalism, will lean on the expertise of his peers at the University of Missouri — specifically in topics including substance use and addiction — to learn more about cannabis and addiction science. He’ll also conduct a five-year research project that includes focus group surveys and a series of experiments with national samples.     

Focus groups, which will begin later this month, will gather data on how people understand the risks and benefits of using cannabis. Massey’s team will then create their own warning labels and complete a national experiment to test the revised versions of warning messages. That information will be used to determine what messaging startegies work best, and the warning labels will be finalized and ultimately used in a much larger, randomized clinical trial.

Massey said this research is important for the overall safety of the general public and that warning labels can, at times, be one of the best ways to get information to people.

“I’ve always been interested in the best ways to communicate health and risk information to the public,” Massey said. "Putting effective warnings on product packaging makes it much more likely that the consumer reads the information at the time of purchase and every time they use the product. This way, people can make more informed decisions about what they are putting in their body.” Massey’s mentorship team includes Brett Froeliger, the director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Systems Core Facility and professor in Psychiatry at MU; Dave Hammond, a professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada; Lucy Popova, an associate professor in the School of Public Health at Georgia State University; Shelly Rodgers, the Maxine Wilson Gregory Chair in Journalism Research in the Missouri School of Journalism; and Jim Thrasher, a professor in the Department of Health Promotion, Education and Behavior at the University of South Carolina.

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