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California may require labels on pot products to warn of mental health risks

Liz Kirkaldie says her grandson's marijuana use led to his schizophrenia diagnosis. She says she's skeptical the labels will work, "But if it helps even one person? Great."
Beth LaBerge
Liz Kirkaldie says her grandson's marijuana use led to his schizophrenia diagnosis. She says she's skeptical the labels will work, "But if it helps even one person? Great."

Liz Kirkaldie's grandson was in the top of his class in high school and a talented jazz bassist when he started smoking pot. The more serious he got about music, the more serious he got about pot.

And the more serious he got about pot, the more he became paranoid, even psychotic. He started hearing voices.

"They were going to kill him and there were people coming to eat his brain. Weird, weird stuff," Kirkaldie says. "I woke up one morning, and no Kory anywhere. Well, it turns out, he'd been running down Villa Lane here totally naked."

Kory came to live with his grandmother for a couple of years in Napa, Calif. She thought maybe she could help. Now, she says that was naïve.

Kory was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Kirkaldie blames the pot.

"The drug use activated the psychosis, is what I really think," she says.

Indeed, many scientific studies have linked marijuana use to an increased risk of developing psychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia. The risk is more than four times greater for people who use high-potency marijuana on a daily basis, compared with those who have never used, according to a study published in The Lancet Psychiatry in 2019. One study found eliminating marijuana use in adolescents would reduce global rates of schizophrenia by 10%.

Doctors and lawmakers in California want cannabis producers to warn consumers of this and other health risks on their packaging labels and in advertising, similar to requirements for cigarettes. They also want sellers to distribute health brochures to first-time customers outlining the risks cannabis poses to youths, drivers and those who are pregnant, especially for pot that has high concentrations of THC, the chemical primarily responsible for marijuana's mental effects.

"Today's turbocharged products are turbocharging the harms associated with cannabis," says Dr. Lynn Silver with thePublic Health Institute, a nonprofit sponsoring the proposed labeling legislation,SB 1097, the Cannabis Right to Know Act.

Californians voted to legalize recreational pot in 2016. Three years later, emergency room visits for cannabis-induced psychosis went up 54% across the state, from 682 to 1,053, according to state hospital data. For people who already have a psychotic disorder, cannabis makes things worse — leading to more ER visits, more hospitalizations and more legal troubles, saysDr. Deepak Cyril D'Souza, a psychiatry professor at Yale University School of Medicine who also serves on thephysicians' advisory board for Connecticut's medical marijuana program.

But D'Souza faces great difficulty convincing his patients of the dangers, especially as19 states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana.

"Both my patients with schizophrenia, and also adolescents, hear very conflicting messages that it's legal; in fact, there may be medical uses for it," he says. "If there are medical uses, how can we say there's anything wrong with it?"

Legalization is not the problem, he says, but rather it's the commercialization of cannabis — the heavy marketing, which can be geared toward attracting young people to become customers for life, and the increase in THC from 4% on average up to between 20% and 35% in today's varieties.

Limiting the amount of THC in pot products and including health warnings on the labels could help reduce the health harms associated with cannabis use, D'Souza says, the same way those methods worked for cigarettes. He credits warning labels, education campaigns and marketing restrictions for the sharp drop in smoking rates among kids and teens in the past decade.

"We know how to message them," D'Souza says. "But I don't think we have the will or the resources, as yet."

Some states, including Colorado, Oregon and New York, have dabbled with cannabis warning label requirements. California's proposed rules are modeled after comprehensive protocols established in Canada: Rotating health warnings would be set against a bright yellow background, use black 12-point font, and take up a third of the package front. The bill suggests language for 10 distinct warnings, including:

Matthew Green / KQED

Opponents of the proposed warning labels say the requirements are excessive and expensive, especially since marketing to children is already prohibited in California and people must be 21 to buy.

"This bill is really duplicative and puts unnecessary burdens on the legal cannabis industry, as we already have incredibly restrictive packaging and advertising requirements," says Lindsay Robinson, executive director of theCalifornia Cannabis Industry Association, which represents legal pot businesses.

The state should focus more on combating the illicit pot market rather than further regulating the legal one, she says. Legal dispensaries are already struggling to keep up with existing rules and taxes — the state's 1,500 licensed pot retailers generated $1.3 billion in state tax revenue last year. Adding more requirements just makes it harder for them to compete with the illicit market, she says, and more likely to go out of business.

"The only real option if they fail out of the legal system is to shutter their businesses altogether or to operate underground. And I don't think the state of California, with the tax revenue, wants either of those to happen," she says. "The heart of the issue is that there's a massive, unregulated market in the state."

Liz Kirkaldie holds a photo of her grandson, Kory, as a child. He began smoking pot in high school and developed schizophrenia.
Beth LaBerge / KQED
Liz Kirkaldie holds a photo of her grandson, Kory, as a child. He began smoking pot in high school and developed schizophrenia.

Some people are skeptical the labels will work. Liz Kirkaldie's grandson, Kory, is stable now, living with his dad. But she's not sure a yellow warning would've stopped him when he was a teen.

"They're just not going to pay attention," she says. "But if it helps even one person? Great."

Scientists still do not know what causes schizophrenia, but they believe multiple factors are at play, including genetics, family history, trauma and other influences in a person's environment, like smoking pot. Some scientists believe having schizophrenia itself is what predisposes people to smoking pot. While it's difficult to prove a direct causal link between cannabis use and schizophrenia, the associations are strong enough to warrant action, says D'Souza, and importantly, pot use is one of the only risk factors people can control.

"Not everyone who smoked cigarettes developed lung cancer, and not everyone who has lung cancer smoked cigarettes," he says. "But I think we would all agree that one of the most preventable causes of lung cancer is cigarette smoking."

Applying the same health education strategies to cannabis that were used for tobacco, he says, is long overdue.

This story comes from NPR's reporting partnership with KQED and Kaiser Health News (KHN).

Copyright 2022 KQED

April Dembosky is the health reporter for The California Report and KQED News. She covers health policy and public health, and has reported extensively on the economics of health care, the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act in California, mental health and end-of-life issues. Her work is regularly rebroadcast on NPR and has been recognized with awards from the Society for Professional Journalists (for sports reporting), and the Association of Health Care Journalists (for a story about pediatric hospice). Her hour-long radio documentary about home funeralswon the Best New Artist award from the Third Coast International Audio Festival in 2009. April occasionally moonlights on the arts beat, covering music and dance. Her story about the first symphony orchestra at Burning Man won the award for Best Use of Sound from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. Before joining KQED in 2013, April covered technology and Silicon Valley for The Financial Times, and freelanced for Marketplace and The New York Times. She is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and Smith College.