Lawmakers challenge professor’s controversial cannabis presentation

Tuesday morning’s House Professions & Public Health Subcommittee meeting on medical cannabis quickly turned tense as a Harvard Medical School professor gave a presentation condemning the use of high-potency cannabis.

Representatives were quick to question professor of psychobiology Bertha Madras‘ assertions, including one in which she linked cannabis and psychiatric symptoms among youth, including schizophrenia.

“People who go into the emergency department with psychosis, due to their initiation into marijuana use, and they continue to use, they’re more likely to convert to full-blown schizophrenia, and the conversion rate is between 20% and 40%,” she said.

However, scientists are split on correlation and causation, which Madras acknowledged, meaning there is no backing to suggest cannabis use causes schizophrenia. Representatives challenged Madras for seeming to present the link as cause.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “use of marijuana at an early age can affect memory, school performance, attention, and learning; conclusions have been mixed regarding its impact on mental health conditions, including psychosis, depression, and anxiety.”

“I’m not sure if I should start running for the hills, or running for a dispensary to relieve my anxiety around so much of what’s been presented,” said Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith. “We have to be very careful about not conflating there being a causality here. … Currently, we have a medical cannabis program, but we already know that the physician needs to basically acknowledge that the benefits outweigh any of the risk.”

Smith took his discontent with the presentation to Twitter, writing that the “so-called ‘expert’” was “pushing misinformation.” He added that Madras “also doesn’t even believe cannabis is medicine” and linked to an op-ed she penned in The Washington Post.

“Why are we listening to her again? Where are the credible experts?” Smith continued.

In another tweet, Smith lamented that Madras is a “known cannabis prohibitionist” and a member of the Federalist Society and that she was pushing “bogus studies.”

The overuse of cannabis, just as the overuse of caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, stimulants and hallucinogens, can cause psychosis, according to a report from The New York Times. Psychosis is defined as a symptom — temporary disorientation often accompanied by paranoia or an ominous sensation.

It should be noted that Madras acknowledged the consequences of high-potency cannabis “are not well described yet because this is a new phenomenon.” One study she used to discuss the correlation was from an observational report at the Bengal Insane Asylum in 1895 that reported 25-40% of patients there a had long history of marijuana use.

“It was far more prominently associated with marijuana than with alcohol or with opioids,” she said. “This is long before marijuana became a political issue, an entrepreneurial or a medical issue.”

Madras also expressed concern over the increased use of high-potency cannabis by young people, since children with parents who use cannabis are about three times more likely to use it themselves. Her concern is exasperated by the increased legal use of dispensaries, which may allow more adults access to cannabis.

Madras said high-potency use among young people is associated with addiction, psychosis and use of other substances.

“It’s not healthy for young people,” Madras said. “High potency is associated with more brain changes, addiction, psychosis and hospitalizations. … One of my primary concerns is multi-generational use, because that is a very significant problem. The highest increases in marijuana use over the past decade, have been in young adults of childbearing and child-rearing age.”

Smith pointed out to Madras that a CDC study from 2019 looking at Colorado, Oregon and Washington — all states that have legalized recreational marijuana — found no statewide increase in youth marijuana use following retail legalization for adults.

“There is not unlimited access for this population that we’ve heard obviously a lot about our youth,” he said.

Smith went on to ask Madras, who served as one of six commissioners on former President Donald Trump’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, if she maintained her opinion she shared in a Washington Post Op-ed arguing that medical cannabis is not medicine.

“I subscribe to the very simple principle — if a drug has gone through a rigid, FDA process for every criteria … and the FDA has approved it, I would lean on it as a medicine,” she responded. “I still subscribe to my Washington Post Op-ed.”

“It’s unheard of in other forms of medical practice to have shatters and dabs and, and cereals and lollipops and cupcakes and gummy bears and so on and so forth,” she said.

Madras also drew criticism from Rep. Michele Rayner via Twitter after the professor compared cannabis to crystal meth or crack cocaine.

“There’s always a push towards making things more potent,” she said. “The motivations for increasing the percentage of THC, the potent component of it, are very, very obvious. I think it’s the same motivation to develop crystal meth or crack cocaine and spirits.”

Rayner called the professor “dangerous,” and “irresponsible.”

Christopher Ferguson, the director for Florida’s Office of Medical Marijuana Use, also presented at the meeting to provide updates to the committee on the state’s medical cannabis program.

In 2020, Post-traumatic stress disorder was the office’s most diagnosed qualifying condition, accounting for 36.3% of patients.

The office also experienced a busy year. In June and July, the office had to hire additional staff to assist with call volume and processing applications. As of Feb. 12, Florida has 2,644 qualified physicians who can recommend cannabis use and 485,693 active patients approved for the drug.

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