Legalized Pot: Are Individuals With Mental Illnesses At Greater Risk Of Harm?

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(Photo11: Lars Hagberg/AFP/Getty Images)

(2-19-19) Marijuana and mental illnesses. Does smoking weed put persons with mental illnesses at greater risk of harm? D. J. Jaffe, author of INSANE CONSEQUENCES,  wrote this recently in USA Today. I’ll be curious to read on my Facebook page about your experiences and opinions.  

Marijuana needs warning labels like tobacco for associated mental, physical health risks

The situation is similar to when cigarettes first became extensively marketed; health risks were known but not disclosed, driving disease and deaths.

In his inaugural address on Jan. 1, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, like other governors, announced that he will push for the legalization of recreational marijuana, but he said nothing about what he will do to mitigate the health risks. Before legislators legalize marijuana, they should require bold and direct warning labels to be placed on the packaging as is done with tobacco products. If the states fail to act, then the Food and Drug Administration should step in and require it.

In early 2017, after exhaustive review, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that there are significant health risks associated with using cannabis and cannabinoids. Yet none of the 33 states that have legalized medical marijuana, or the 10 states that have legalized recreational use, gives adequate warnings of those risks.

The situation is similar to when cigarettes first became extensively marketed. The health risks were known but not disclosed, leading to disease and lives being lost. In addition to appearing on the packaging, the warning labels should be displayed prominently wherever the product is sold, in advertising and in mandated public service announcements funded by the marijuana industry.

The academies, founded by Congress, comprise the country’s leading researchers. They have become the nation’s most reputable arbiters of the science that should guide policy. The findings of the report, “The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids,” were particularly disturbing for people prone to mental illness and those who have a mental illness.

The report found either substantial or moderate evidence of an association between cannabis use and the development of schizophrenia or other psychoses; increased symptoms of mania and hypomania in individuals diagnosed with bipolar disorders; increased risk for the development of depressive disorders; and increased incidence of suicidal ideation, attempts and completions.

Schizophrenia and bipolar disorders are two of the most devastating neurobiological disorders and the ones that are often associated with homelessness and incarceration. If there is an association with using legalized marijuana, shouldn’t the public be warned?

Labels provide consumers info to avoid danger

The risks are not limited to mental impairments alone. The reviewers found substantial evidence of an association between cannabis smoking and worse respiratory symptoms, more frequent chronic bronchitis episodes, increased risk of motor vehicle crashes, and lower birth weight of the offspring of those who use cannabis and cannabinoids. For pediatric populations, there is moderate evidence of an association between cannabis use and increased risk of overdose injuries, including respiratory distress.

In the rush to legalize and decriminalize marijuana, these risks are largely being ignored. Washington and Colorado were the first states to legalize recreational marijuana. While both warn pregnant mothers not to use it, the only other significant warning on the packaging is that there “may be health risks,” a watered-down mealy mouthed warning that fails to give consumers the concrete information they need to avoid danger.

While the National Academies found “association,” association is not the same as causality. Perhaps the increased risk of schizophrenia developing is because those who are prone to schizophrenia also are prone to use these products.

But until we know the chicken-or-egg answer, we should not follow the example of the tobacco regulation where the product was allowed to be marketed unencumbered by warnings, leading to more than 480,000 deaths a year, and subsequently the spending of millions of dollars re-educating consumers who had been misled in the first place.

If marijuana is to be legalized, let’s get it right from Day One.

DJ Jaffe, author of “Insane Consequences: How the Mental Health Industry Fails the Mentally Ill,” is executive director of Mental Illness Policy Org. Follow him on Twitter: @MentalIllPolicy



About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.