BOSTON — Physicians and medical researchers are pressing for tougher laws to protect the public from high-potency cannabis products.
In a report sent to lawmakers, a group of 40 doctors and researchers at Harvard Medical School, Boston Children’s Hospital and other medical institutions criticizes regulators and argues that recreational and medical pot is "being governed and regulated as if it were an ordinary commodity" instead of a drug with "potential to do significant harm to public health."
It warns that users of THC, the drug's psychoactive compound, risk addiction and mental health problems such as schizophrenia, depression, anxiety and suicide.
The 16-page report, produced by the anti-legalization group Massachusetts Prevention Alliance, calls on lawmakers and marijuana regulators to halt all new pot licenses and implement a series of recommendations while combining the recreational and medical pot markets under a "public health framework" similar to the one that regulates the sale of tobacco products.
"Regulatory failure in the case of the marijuana industry, like tobacco, opioids and vape devices, is likely unless there is a prioritized focus on public health," the report states.
The group points to increasing research that shows negative mental health effects from use of the drug by youth and adults, including "cannabis-induced psychosis."
"The harms of high-potency cannabis use to public health are clear," said Jody Hensley, the alliance's policy adviser. "This is not a harmless drug, despite what the industry claims."
Among its recommendations:
-- Delay the licensing of social consumption sites and home delivery of marijuana products;
-- Establish strict limits on potency and regulation of THC and other psychoactive compounds; and
-- Update warning labels to note that pot use "increases the risk of serious mental illness including psychosis, paranoia, suicidal thoughts and depression."
Marijuana advocates criticized the report as "reefer madness like" and pointed out that Massachusetts' pot rules are already among the most stringent in the industry.
"To assert that the state is treating cannabis as an 'ordinary commodity' is laughable," said Jim Borghesani, an industry consultant and spokesman for the 2016 campaign to legalize its sale and use. "I don’t care how many junk-science studies they cite, that assertion alone should inform everyone that this group hasn’t done its homework and shouldn’t be taken seriously."
Massachusetts is one of 10 states and the District of Columbia where recreational marijuana is legal, and one of 33 states and the District of Columbia with a medical marijuana program. The state has registered about 60,000 medical marijuana patients, according to regulators.
A 2016 voter-approved recreational pot law allows adults age 21 and over to possess up to 10 ounces of weed, and it authorizes regulated cultivation and retail sales.
To date, 19 retail shops have opened throughout the state, including Alternate Therapies Group in Salem, reporting more than $100 million in sales since last fall.
Additional regulations tacked onto the pot law by the Legislature prohibited marketing and advertising of marijuana products, with strict bans on TV and radio ads that target underage users. But the physicians group wants further limits as well as restrictions on the industry's lobbying and involvement in the regulatory process.
Learning from tobacco industry
Hensley said those recommendations are based on lessons from the powerful tobacco lobby, which blocked clinical studies and research on the health risks of cigarette smoking. The marijuana industry is spending millions of dollars to convince policymakers and the public that pot is safe, she said, when "the studies and research are showing it isn't harmless."
"Youth smoking rates skyrocketed in the mid-20th century because it wasn't heavily regulated," she said. "At the time, the concern was lung cancer. Now it's the brain that's at risk."
In a statement, the Cannabis Control Commission pointed out that the physicians’ report acknowledges that many of the state's pot regulations already align with public health standards, and that it "continues to engage with the public health community as part of its mission to safely, equitably, and effectively implement the legal market in Massachusetts."
The commission "will continue to fulfill its mandatory research agenda that will inform the public about the social and economic trends of marijuana in Massachusetts as well as public health impacts," the statement said.
On Beacon Hill, lawmakers are considering dozens of marijuana-related proposals to expand or restrict its sale and use.
One, filed by Sen. Jason Lewis, D-Winchester, would require regulators to limit the potency of marijuana products similar to beer, wine and hard cider. Another proposal, filed by Rep. Jim O'Day, D-Worcester, seeks to increase the legal age for buying and using marijuana from 21 to 25.
Then there's a citizen-filed proposal seeking to repeal the recreational pot law, as well as one requesting the state Supreme Judicial Court to rule on its constitutionality.
So far, the only marijuana-related proposals to win hearings before the Joint Committee on Cannabis Policy have dealt with loosening regulations for industrial hemp growers.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Salem News and its sister newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com.