Strong links to psychosis raise questions about marijuana safety

It was a mid-flight meltdown.  On June 7th, 2017: a Delta jet had to turn around over the Pacific ocean and head back to the Seattle Airport.

"I was in fear for my life and the life of that aircraft," said passenger Lon Arnold.

Arnold was attacked while trying to subdue 23-year-old Joseph Hudek on an overseas flight from Seattle to Beijing.

"He was asking for oxygen, he couldn't breath, he was gonna try and open the exit door to get himself some air. I have to imagine he was on something," said another passenger.

That something was tetrahydrocannabinol or THC. In federal court, Hudek's attorney claimed he ate four marijuana edibles before boarding the plane.

It's just one of a dozen stories about marijuana, mental illness, and violence highlighted in a new book "Tell Your Children" by author Alex Berenson, the former New York Times reporter, who spends most of his time writing fictional spy novels.

"My wife who is a forensic psychiatrist said go look at the studies," said Berenson. "And when I looked at the studies I thought to myself, how on earth is it possible that I had no idea."

Berenson recently spoke at the Kennedy Library in Dorchester. The event was organized by the Massachusetts Prevention Alliance or MAPA.

In May, MAPA published a "statement of concern" to the Commonwealth signed by more than 40 doctors and researchers urging the state to slow down the process of licensing and focus more on the potential dangers of marijuana like psychosis.

One of those doctors was Sharon Levy from Boston Children's Hospital.

"I'm concerned that the initial rollout has been largely guided by the industry," said Levy.

She led a survey published in JAMA Pediatrics that found 40% of teens who said they smoked marijuana in the last year experienced symptoms of psychosis, which include delusions, paranoia, or hallucinations.

"It was shocking, it was absolutely shocking," said Levy.

Berenson says the science is clear and only gotten clearer since his book came out.

Two new studies this year have linked marijuana and psychosis.

One published in Lancet Psychiatry found people who regularly smoke high potency marijuana are five times more likely to have a psychotic episode.

Another study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found Denver emergency room visits due to THC consumption have skyrocketed since legalization five years ago.

"Let's start with the numbers are up, well they're up from a very small number to a very small number," said Dr. Jordan Tishler, president of the Association of Cannabis Specialists and an instructor at the Harvard School of Medicine.

He says it's no secret that marijuana is a psychoactive drug that can cause temporary psychotic effects when overconsumed. Tishler is more skeptical about the link between long-term psychosis and marijuana use.

"Link is an interesting word. What they're trying to say is association. The thing is that associations are interesting, but they do not and cannot show causality," Tishler said,

In Canada where marijuana was recently legalized, all products containing THC are required to have labels that warn users about the potential for psychosis and schizophrenia.

Cannabis Control Commissioner Jennifer Flanagan says the state's informational website  is clear about dangers of marijuana.

"We've taken great effort to ensure that people understand there are concerns when it comes to the substance," said Flanagan.

But psychosis is only mentioned once on the website - on the safety page talking about THC percentages.

If you go to the parental page, there's a link to the CDC's page that does mention psychosis.
Flanagan believes more needs to be done.

"The reality is we need to make sure we have all of this on our radar," said Flanagan

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