By Lauren Davis / For the herald
In 2012, Washington voters approved Initiative 502 to legalize cannabis. At that time, the black market was dominated by dried cannabis flowers with a potency of around 10 percent.
Dried cannabis flowers are biologically limited to about 30 percent potency, and I-502 has limited the potency of foods to 10 percent. In an oversight of extraordinary proportions, however, no potency limit has been set for cannabis concentrates such as THC-infused vape oils, “shatter” and “swab wax”, both cannabis extracts. Enter science, industry, business investors and profit motivation and today concentrates with a potency of 99 percent are easily available at cannabis retailers. According to researchers, these concentrates are “as close to the cannabis plant as strawberries are to frozen strawberry pop-tarts”. Cannabis concentrate sales increased from 14 percent of the market share in 2015 to 37 percent in 2019.
I have dedicated my professional and legislative career to the prevention, treatment, and recovery of mental health and substance use. Spurred on by reports from adolescents with cannabis-induced psychosis filling emergency rooms and psychiatric wards, and from students who had psychotic episodes after dabbing, I began researching cannabis and psychosis. The literature is both final and doomed.
Washington’s leading cannabis experts at the University of Washington and Washington State University recently released a consensus statement summarizing the science: “High potency cannabis use can have lifelong mental health consequences, often seen in adolescence and early adulthood manifest. Daily use of cannabis, especially high potency products, increases the risk of developing a psychotic disorder such as schizophrenia and is related to an earlier onset of symptoms compared to people who do not use cannabis. “
During the 2020 legislature, I tabled a bill to limit the effectiveness of cannabis concentrates to 10 percent. This number corresponded to the limit value for food and was a starting point for negotiations. The bill included an exception for patients using highly potent concentrates for medicinal purposes. I had numerous meetings with representatives of the cannabis industry and no one was aware of the link between psychosis. Although they did not agree with my proposed solution, the industry leaders were determined to come to the table as thoughtful partners to address this issue.
So, you can imagine my surprise when representatives of the cannabis industry testified before the House Commerce & Gaming Committee that the research that implicates cannabis in psychotic disorders is baseless, rather than providing more palatable political solutions as promised. Borrowing from the well-worn playbooks of their ancestors, big tobacco and opioid makers, cannabis business leaders tried to poke holes in science and offer alternative explanations.
In 1957, Clarence Cook Little, Director of the Tobacco Industry, wrote: “No one has determined that cigarette smoke or any of its known constituents are carcinogenic to humans.” Sixty-three years later, cannabis industry leaders testified to our lawyers that “cannabis use [is] not independently associated with psychosis. ”
Following the example of Purdue Pharma, the opioid manufacturer, who wrote that addiction “is not caused by drugs … it is caused by drug exposure in a susceptible person,” the cannabis industry tried to propose a counter-theory: It is people who have a genetic predisposition for psychotic disorders that they develop and then use cannabis for self-medication. This theory has been invalidated by studies that take family history into account and still show a significant increase in psychotic disorders from cannabis use.
I never thought the cannabis industry would enthusiastically approve of a low potency limit. I just expected them to do their word well; To act as a serious partner in addressing the role of your product in one of the greatest emerging health crises of our time. If the industry’s first step is to spit the consensus of the scientific community in the spirit of the climate-deniers, it is difficult not to question the sincerity of its commitment to public health.
I just introduced House Bill 1463, which limits the effectiveness of cannabis concentrates to 30 percent and increases the purchase age for concentrates from 21 to 25 years. Washington’s cannabis industry now has a second chance to act with integrity and come to the table as a problem solver. It is only our children’s fate that we play with.
Rep. Lauren Davis, D-Lynnwood, represents the 32nd Ward. She was the founding director of the Washington Recovery Alliance and taught UW’s mental health policy course.