Conference Coverage

Addiction specialists: Cannabis policies should go up in smoke



– Addiction specialists have a message for American policymakers who are rushing to create laws to allow the use of medical and recreational marijuana: You’re doing it wrong, but we know how you can do it right.

Marijuana leaves Smithore

“We can have spirited debates on these policies, recreational, medical decriminalization, etc. But we can’t argue how we’ve done a poor job implementing these policies in the United States,” psychiatrist Kevin P. Hill, MD, of Harvard Medical School, Boston, said in a symposium about cannabis policy at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry.

The AAAP is proposing a “model state law” regarding cannabis. Among other things, the proposal urges states to:

  • Ban recreational use of cannabis until the age of 21, and perhaps even until 25.
  • Not denote psychiatric indications such as posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression as qualifying conditions for the use of medical marijuana.
  • Educate the public about potential harms of cannabis.
  • Provide state-level regulation that includes funding of high-grade analytic equipment to test cannabis.
  • Maintain a public registry that reports annually on adverse outcomes.

Research suggests that marijuana use has spiked in recent years, Dr. Hill said. Meanwhile, states have dramatically broadened the legality of marijuana. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 33 states and the District of Columbia allow the medical use of marijuana. Of those, 11 states and the District of Columbia also allow the adult use of recreational marijuana. Several other states allow access to cannabidiol (CBD)/low-THC products in some cases (

The problem, Dr. Hill said, is that there’s “a big gap between what the science says and what the laws are saying, unfortunately. So we’re in this precarious spot.”

He pointed to his own 2015 review of cannabinoid studies that found high-quality evidence for an effect for just three conditions – chronic pain, neuropathic pain, and spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis. The study notes that Food and Drug Administration–approved cannabinoids are also available to treat nausea and vomiting linked to chemotherapy and to boost appetite in patients with wasting disease. (JAMA. 2015 Jun 23-30;313(24):2474-83).

However, states have listed dozens of conditions – 53 overall – as qualifying conditions for the use of medical marijuana, Dr. Hill said. And, he said, “the reality is that a lot of people who are using medical cannabis don’t have any of these conditions,” he said.

Researchers at the symposium focused on the use of cannabis as a treatment for addiction and other psychiatric illnesses.

Four states have legalized the use of cannabis in patients with opioid use disorder, said cannabis researcher Ziva D. Cooper, PhD, of the University of California, Los Angeles, who spoke at the symposium. But can cannabis actually reduce opioid use? Preliminary clinical data suggest THC could reduce opioid use, Dr. Cooper said, while population and state-level research is mixed.

What about other mental health disorders? Posttraumatic stress disorder is commonly listed as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana use in state laws. And some states, like California, give physicians wide leeway in recommending marijuana use for patients with conditions that aren’t listed in the law.

However, symposium speaker and psychiatrist Frances R. Levin, MD, of New York State Psychiatric Institute, pointed to a 2019 review that suggests “there is scarce evidence to suggest that cannabinoids improve depressive disorders and symptoms, anxiety disorders, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, Tourette syndrome, posttraumatic stress disorder, or psychosis” (Lancet Psychiatry. 2019 Dec;6[12]:995-1010).

What now? The AAAP hopes lawmakers will pay attention to its proposed model state law, which will be published soon in the association’s journal, the American Journal on Addictions.

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