‘It’s going to be devastating’: Former user, experts, warn Missouri voters against legalizing high-potency marijuana

When Missouri voters likely vote on legalizing recreational marijuana later this year, will they know about its unprecedented strength and its growing ties to psychotic episodes, violence and even mass shootings?

Probably not, experts warn The Heartlander. Yet in May, pro-legalization forces turned in over 390,000 signatures to get recreational marijuana on the Missouri ballot in November, more than twice the number needed. Election officials were still certifying the signatures this week.

All this, as marijuana potency – measured by THC, the main psychoactive compound tetrahydrocannabinol – has exploded in recent decades.

“The general problem we have with getting people to oppose marijuana legalization is the public perception that marijuana is benign, and that just is not the case anymore,” says David Evans, a New Jersey-based substance abuse lawyer and former research scientist with the New Jersey Department of Health.

“It’s a very different substance from when I smoked marijuana at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, back in the ‘60s. Back then it was maybe 2- or 3% THC. They have THC products now that are 99%. Your typical edible product that’s sold in California and Colorado is 85, 90, 95% THC.

“So it’s a very, very different drug. It’s the equivalent of drinking maybe a 3.2 beer compared to pure grain alcohol. It’s going to have a very different effect on you.”

We asked Anne Hassel about the effects. The 54-year-old was such a fan of marijuana from smoking it since the 1980s that she left her career as a physical therapist to work in the budding marijuana industry in Massachusetts. It nearly killed her, and perhaps others around her, after today’s cannabis product potency made her psychotic.

“People have no idea just how dangerous this is,” she tells The Heartlander. “People don’t understand what today’s marijuana is. They don’t understand the high potency. They have no concept. And I was someone who believed that I could use it … until I consumed the commercialized, industrialized, high-THC products. It almost ended my life.

“I think it’s a big mistake,” she says of legalization, adding that Missouri voters “need to ask themselves, ‘What are we doing this for? Why are we unleashing this on our young population?’ It’s going to be devastating. I would urge them to vote against it.”

Dr. Eric Voth of Topeka, Kansas, president and chairman of the board of the International Academy on the Science and Impact of Cannabis (IASIC), has researched and treated marijuana patients for decades. He thought he’d seen it all, but he’s never seen anything like this – especially since neighboring Colorado legalized recreational marijuana in 2012.

“I’ve personally taken care of kids, I’d say young people, so early 20s for instance, that have gone off to Colorado and used vapes or oils or whatever and come back just psychotic out of their minds, until they finally kind of sober up from the experience.”

Voters should be alarmed by all this, Voth said, particularly since “virtually no state that has allowed medical marijuana has put limits on the percentage or the strength.”

“Buyer beware,” cautions Dr. Kenneth Finn, one of the co-founders of IASIC, and a pain medicine doctor of 28 years in Colorado Springs who’s seen the effects of legalization in the state – where, he says, the dispensaries for medical and recreational marijuana now outnumber the McDonald’s and Starbucks combined.

“Marijuana is the most prevalent substance found in completed teen suicide in Colorado. That never used to be the case,” Finn says, citing just one of many societal ills from legalization. “I think that it’s important that the voters really understand what they’re getting themselves into.”

The state government needs to understand what it, too, might be getting into: According to the 2019 state of Oregon Marijuana Audit Report, Finn says, that state was only able to inspect 3% of its dispensaries and just one-third of growers. 

“To me, that’s a huge fail in a state that’s done it for so many years, and they concluded that they can’t even guarantee the test results are reliable, and they couldn’t guarantee that products were safe for human consumption. But onward they go.”

In trying to regulate recreational marijuana, Finn says Missouri officials also would be aiming at a moving target. “These products are ever-evolving, and the science can’t keep up. We can’t keep up with all these products that the industry is finding and making and flooding the market with. It’s frightening, and I think this is a very important thing that the public really needs to hear about.”

States have done an exceedingly poor job of regulating medical marijuana alone, the experts say. Both Evans and Finn, for example, went undercover as patients in separate experiments in Colorado and New York, only to discover the weed was being given out like candy – and in some cases in the form of it.

His pot “doctor,” Evans reports, told him, “‘OK, well, we’re going to get you a certificate to get marijuana’ – before he’d even said anything to me.”

Evans says he had with him a pile of records for his earlier cancer treatment, but was told, “‘Well, you’ve got to have something other than just cancer to get this. I’m going to put you down for post-traumatic stress syndrome.’ And I said, ‘I don’t have post-traumatic stress syndrome.’ And he said, ‘Well, was having cancer stressful?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he put down post-traumatic stress syndrome.

“Never verified anything that I told him – and gave me a discount for the local pot store, which was illegal in New York to do that.”

“I was able to get approved for a medical marijuana card in 60 seconds,” Finn says of his own experiment in Colorado. “No medical records review. No MRI review. Didn’t ask me my level of pain, which on average is about one to two on a 10 scale. But I was approved for severe pain in a minute. So now I can go to any store or dispensary in Colorado and get my two months’ allotment and go from that store and go to another store and another store, because there’s no tracking.”

Government oversight is all the more important given widespread contamination in marijuana products and harmful environmental impacts, both Finn and Hassel say. Hassel says she quit using after being poisoned with heavy metals in the products, as well as mold – which she says she and other insiders have tried warning the industry about.

Some countries actually use the marijuana plant to leach poisons out of the ground to make the soil healthier, Finn warned. Then, they’re consumed by users.

Finn cites recalls of marijuana products for arsenic, cadmium, mold and fungus – adding that, “Cancer patients in California have died from fungal infections when they’re undergoing their cancer treatment and they opt for medical marijuana, and that marijuana is contaminated with fungus. So the fungus kills the patient, not the cancer. And this is happening all over the country.”

Sadly, Evans and Voth say hoping that reporters will educate the public about the dangers of cannabis products – especially since dispensaries provide such vague and meager information – is a lost cause, with most media buying into the outdated notion of marijuana as harmless. Aside from a few news organizations and news stories, Evans says, “the media [are] generally not on our side on this.”

One article a year ago at CNN.com did note a Danish study that found an exponential increase in marijuana-induced schizophrenia there. “Cannabis use is not harmless,” Carsten Hjorthøj, an associate professor at the Copenhagen Research Center for Mental Health and an author of the study, told CNN.

“This finding has important ramifications regarding legalization and control of use of cannabis,” Hjorthøj said of the study. The CNN article described schizophrenia as “a chronic, severe and disabling mental disorder. Its symptoms may include delusions, thought disorder and hallucinations.” There is no cure.

Evans says he’s beginning to see more articles warning of the dangers, but that society is today, with marijuana, where we were with tobacco in the 1950s – when doctors in advertisements touted cigarettes as being good for you.

As a result, voters pretty much have to take to the internet to get up to speed on marijuana’s dangers. Voth suggests his organization’s website, iasic1.org, as well as PubMed (pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov), operated by the federal government’s National Institutes of Health.

Another online resource is Smart Approaches to Marijuana (learnaboutsam.org), which describes itself as “an alliance of organizations and individuals dedicated to a health-first approach to marijuana policy. We are professionals working in mental health and public health. We are bipartisan. We are medical doctors, lawmakers, treatment providers, preventionists, teachers, law enforcement officers and others who seek a middle road between incarceration and legalization.

“Smart Approaches to Marijuana envisions a society where marijuana policies are aligned with the scientific understanding of marijuana’s harms, and the commercialization and normalization of marijuana are no more. Our mission is to educate citizens on the science of marijuana and to promote health-first, smart policies and attitudes that decrease marijuana use and its consequences.”

Unfortunately, Evans maintains, politicians are largely bought and paid for by marijuana lobby contributions and promises of government revenues that fall short of reality and ignore the costs of associated social ills.

“I’ve been told that the marijuana industry has 81 lobbyists in Washington D.C.,” Evans says. “We have one or two on our side

“I come from five generations of medical doctors. When I was a kid, if the state medical society opposed something, the bill never passed. Now the politicians are so jaded by marijuana money that they ignore (the doctors). They just seem to not care.”

The legalization trend has been slowed a bit, of late. Virginia pulled back from retail marijuana this year after approving it last year, Evans says, and the governor of Delaware vetoed a legalization bill last month.

But interestingly, a Google search for such news turns up mostly pro-marijuana stories.

So, what would these doctors tell Missouri voters about legalizing recreational marijuana?

“Well, I would tell Missouri voters to, first of all, find out the truth about marijuana and do not believe what you’re being told by marijuana-industry politicians,” Evans says, “just like I wouldn’t believe anything that the tobacco industry told me, or the opiate industry told me. 

“When I speak to crowds, I say, ‘How many of you think that the tobacco industry is looking out for your family’s interests?’ Nobody raises their hand. And then I say, ‘How many of you think that the drug cartels are looking out for your family’s interests?’ Nobody raises their hand. And I say, ‘How many of you think that the marijuana industry is looking out for your family’s interests?’ Everybody gets the point. 

“These people are going to make a lot of money selling a drug that’s clearly addictive, that is damaging mentally.”

Voth implores voters to understand that, “Legalization will unleash increases in psychotic episodes, suicides, violence, opiate overdoses and vehicle deaths. That evidence is clear with states that legalize.” He says voters either need to “demand caps on THC content of less than 10% – or better yet, not legalize.”

As for IASIC, it includes about 40 doctors internationally, Voth says, along with some researchers and scientists. Evans said he’s familiar with Voth and the team at IASIC, and they’re all eminently qualified and experienced speakers and writers on the topic of marijuana.

“I think they’re very credible,” Evans says, “and they’re very careful about anything they put out to make sure that it’s backed up by peer-reviewed studies and reputable journals. I’ve used a lot of their stuff because it’s credible. It’s backed up by credible science.”

Asked what he would advise Missouri voters to do, Finn says, “Do your research and make sure what you’re deciding on is really what you want, because sometimes the grass isn’t greener on the other side of the fence, and it might be terrible.

“This is not your grandma’s weed. This is strong stuff that is prone to contaminants and no regulation.”

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