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Monday, September 25, 2023
Sept. 25, 2023

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Donnelly: Follow the latest science on cannabis policy


The National Institute on Drug Abuse has now linked cannabis use with schizophrenia, an illness with life-changing implications for individuals and cost impacts for communities. Studies in other countries have analyzed this link for years, but in the U.S. policymakers downplay its risks.

Since 1996, the legal cannabis industry has expanded from medical-only to recreational use in 22 states. Pending federal legalization is supported by members of both parties and the cannabis industry.

In Washington, recreational use of pot was approved in 2012. Expanding now to the workplace, a bill passed in 2023, taking effect in 2024, bans most employers from discriminating against a job applicant due to cannabis use off the job, despite long-lived potential risks to performance, judgment and mental health.

In 2018, as a mental health advocate, I testified to the Clark County Council regarding legalizing pot sales. I presented the science linking marijuana use and mental illness (Scientific American, October 2017).

Mike Cooke, then undersheriff, stated at the time, “Drugs have been destroying families for generations and will continue to do so … Unfortunately, now our local governments want to increase revenue on the backs of these poor families.”

It was indeed about the money. Following the council’s approval, county cannabis industry sales increased from $27 million in 2015 to a peak of $93.3 million in 2021 (The Columbian, April 4). Clark County has reaped $169 million in excise tax receipts through December 2021.

The latest science is clear. NIDA reports: “Young men with cannabis use disorder have an increased risk of developing schizophrenia … researchers found strong evidence of an association between cannabis use disorder (inability to ‘stop using cannabis despite it causing negative consequences’) and schizophrenia among men and women, though the association was much stronger among young men … The study authors estimated that as many as 30 percent of cases of schizophrenia among men aged 21-30 might have been prevented by averting cannabis use disorder.

“The study also adds to existing evidence suggesting that the proportion of new schizophrenia cases that may be attributed to cannabis use disorder has consistently increased over the past decades … likely linked to the higher potency of cannabis. Increases in the legalization of cannabis over the past few decades have made it one of the most frequently used psychoactive substances … while also decreasing the public’s perception of its harm.”

It is no surprise, then, that adolescent cannabis abuse in the U.S. has risen by 245 percent since 2000. This trend may partly explain the violence committed by some disturbed young men with no evident motive.

The New York Times (May 26) has reported that “more and more teenagers are coming to school high, New York City teachers say … some classrooms were in disarray as more pupils showed up late and high.” One teacher reported “it felt like more and more were using without knowing the source, impact or consequences of early marijuana use.”

Brain health governs everything an individual thinks and does. Detachment from reality, as may occur with serious mental illness, can be disastrous. Health care solutions for schizophrenia are complex, and if they fall short, individuals, their families and their communities suffer.

Shouldn’t we explain this more clearly to our children? How about warning labels on all pot products? And shouldn’t the public risks be reflected in our public policies?

If federal legalization of marijuana comes up for a vote in the U.S. House, it is hoped Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez will vote no.