One of the goals of legalizing cannabis was to ensure that the pot Californians buy is relatively safe. No more random sandwich baggies filled with who-knows-what. Legal cannabis is tested to ensure it’s free of contaminants, and must be sold in tamper-proof containers that carry legally mandated warning labels.
But the warning that’s required is so tiny it’s almost impossible to read. And it doesn’t mention anything about the risk of mental health problems associated with heavy marijuana use, which has been documented in a growing body of scientific research.
So state Sen. Richard Pan, a Sacramento Democrat and a longtime pediatrician, introduced legislation to require bigger, bolder health warnings on legal pot products and advertisements — an idea backed by medical doctors and public health professionals, and modeled after the cannabis labels used in Canada.
His original proposal would have required warnings to be printed on the front of a package, covering at least one-third of it, typed in 12-point font on a bright yellow background. It called for 10 rotating warnings, each one focused on a risk of cannabis use that’s been substantiated by scientific research, including: that frequent use may contribute to psychotic disorders and suicide attempts, that use by teenagers can harm the developing brain, that adverse effects are more likely in products with a high concentration of THC.
Unsurprisingly, cannabis industry lobbyists have been working hard to kill this bill. They argue that it puts an unnecessary burden on legal operators and would force them to raise prices, which could in turn push consumers to buy pot on the black market. After the bill passed the Senate, the pot lobby persuaded the Assembly Business and Professions Committee to significantly water it down.
The legislation no longer requires a rotating roster of specific warnings, nor does it dictate their color, size or font. It’s especially disappointing that the Assembly committee removed the requirement for health warnings on cannabis billboards and other advertisements designed to lure people to buy a potentially harmful product.
Nevertheless, the bill still includes important provisions that deserve the Legislature’s support. It would improve the current labeling scheme by requiring the state to develop “a clear and prominent warning regarding the risks that cannabis use may contribute to mental health problems.” And it calls for the state, in consultation with public health professionals and medical researchers, to evaluate and update cannabis warning labels every five years as scientific research evolves.
It also requires the state to develop a one-page flier that would be available at all legal dispensaries describing the health risks linked with cannabis use, including the potential for psychosis and schizophrenia associated with using products containing high levels of THC. This would mark the first official recognition by the state that the most potent weed products can be dangerous. That’s especially important because the state government is implicitly sending the opposite message by allowing the California State Fair to award growers a prize for the most potent pot.
State officials — and the cannabis industry itself — have an interest in making California’s legal pot marketplace as safe as possible. They must not dismiss the research on marijuana’s mental health risks as reefer madness-style hysteria. Emergency room visits for cannabis-induced psychosis shot up 54% across California three years after voters made weed legal, Kaiser Health News recently reported.
Giving consumers more information about the risks of using cannabis is smart policy that will ultimately help legal actors distinguish themselves from the thriving black market. The Legislature should send Gov. Gavin Newsom SB 1097 so he can sign it into law.