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NIH to Congress: Study link between increased cannabis use and psychosis, suicidal thoughts

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A key National Institutes of Health official told Capitol Hill lawmakers they are right to be concerned about the potential link between increased use of recreational marijuana and psychosis.

Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said her office is trying to understand the link, given the rapid uptick in cannabis use, particularly products with higher concentrations of the active ingredient known as THC.

“It is the high doses that are associated with psychosis,” Dr. Volkow told the Senate Appropriations Committee. “So yes, we are prioritizing this scenario of research to try to unequivocally determine if there’s a causal link between the use of cannabis and psychosis.”

Psychosis is a mental illness that involves lost contact with reality.

Dr. Volkow was responding to Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican, who wanted to make sure NIH was on top of the issue, given trends in marijuana use among young people whose brains are still developing.

Many politicians and industry players are pushing lax pot policies, saying they advance social justice and equity without causing much societal harm.

Things have changed swiftly over the past decade. Colorado and Washington state became the states to legalize recreational marijuana in 2012. Since then, 19 states and the District of Columbia have joined them, though states have varying approaches to sales.

Smart Approaches to Marijuana, an organization that warns about the harm of marijuana use, issued a report last month that says 52.5 million Americans used marijuana in 2021 versus 17.5 million in 1992.

Marijuana flower is becoming more potent, the SAM report said, with the average concentration of THC increasing from 3.75% in 1995 to 15.8% in 2018.

Dr. Drew Pinsky, a physician known for his TV appearances and medical work on addiction, said he is witnessing the consequences at his practice.

“We are seeing psychotic episodes at an extraordinary rate,” Dr. Pinsky said at a D.C. summit hosted by SAM.

Dr. Volkow said it is a critical area of exploration.

“It’s a very important area of research to try and understand under what conditions the use of marijuana can result in psychosis and, importantly, chronic psychosis,” she said.

She said researchers are also looking at the potential role of cannabis in suicidal behavior.

“From what we know,” she said, “we should be concerned and certainly be monitoring the trends.”

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