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Anti-cannabis, industry forces collide on proposed California labeling law

Much like it was for the tobacco warning issue dating back to the 1960s, product labeling is about to blow up in a cannabis industry versus health care and youth groups’ showdown.

A panel of doctors, youth groups and parents assembled Thursday in a virtual press conference called for more product warnings on packages and support for California Senate Bill 1097 — the Cannabis Right to Know Act.

It was introduced in mid-February by state Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, and is headed into a Business, Professions and Economic Development Committee hearing April 4. Pan, a pediatrician by trade, led the media conference call that featured parents who attributed their children’s death and homelessness to overuse of the substance still considered illegal by the federal government — but not in California.

Pan told the group that consumer warnings are necessary for cannabis sales, “like (those on) tobacco products that exist across the world.” He specifically took aim at “harmful additives” and other contaminants that allegedly go into cannabis products now.

Additives were defined by the physician groups as flavoring agents such as “terpene pinene” that may affect the lungs, they indicated, adding the state Department of Cannabis Control stepping in to issue guidelines “is good.” The doctors also listed mold, pesticides, herbicides and heavy metals as other potential problems.

And even though government warnings about the “intoxicating effects” already exist on cannabis product labels, Pan said the current ones don’t go far enough.

“I authored the Cannabis Right to Know Act because current health warnings required for cannabis products are insufficient to communicate well-established health risks, especially to our youth,” he said.

The bill points to a significant increase in the percentage of California teens between the ages of 12 to 17 using cannabis between 2016 and 2019, citing a report by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

While industry advocates and manufacturers dismissed the effort to upgrade warnings, bill backers said risks from cannabis use include “adverse effects” on mental health, driving under the influence and lung damage.

The new rotating labels would mandate others with a bright yellow background and about a 12-point font. For example, here’s how one reads: “Cannabis use may contribute to mental health problems, including psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia. Risk is greatest for frequent users and when using products with high THC levels.”

THC is the ingredient in cannabis that makes users high.

Also on the call, was Jim Keddy, executive director of Youth Forward, a Sacramento-based children’s advocacy group. Keddy said “the risk to youth is high,” especially since so many cannabis companies target the younger set in their product marketing.

He singled out a billboard on Fruitridge Road in Sacramento for the Eaze delivery service. The advertisement spelled out the name of a cannabis product in gummies. Another one on the same street touts a dispensary’s cannabis-containing gelato and biscotti, products otherwise familiar to kids.

Keddy noted that in the run-up to the 2016 California voter approval of recreational cannabis use by adults, backers promised to refrain from marketing the product to children.

The Business Journal asked him whether there were regrets the landmark ballot initiative passed.

“When it was voted on, it was impossible to see what would emerge of the commercial cannabis industry,” Keddy said.

At the news conference, promoters of the legislation offered physicians who endorse the bill on behalf of more than 50 health care organizations, and parents who back it, claiming their children were harmed by cannabis use.

A few of them were on the conference call in tears.

Bart Bright of Benicia in Solano County insisted his 29-year-old son Kevin, who committed suicide in August 2018, had a years-long “addiction” to marijuana.

“He chose marijuana over his friendships. Kevin ended his life, but our lives will never be the same. It’s too late for Kevin, but not too late for others,” said Bright, who endorses the bill. He started a virtual support group for about 700 other parents struggling with the same pain and anguish.

Physicians on the call cited reports to back their claims.

The bill cites a 2021 study by National Institutes of Health researchers who found major increases in suicidal ideas among cannabis users nationally, even those without major depression. The risk tripled with daily use.

This isn’t the first time health warnings on product labels generated massive public and industry dialogue.

With the passage of the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act in 1965, the U.S. government mandated for the first time that all cigarette packages and advertising materials must include cautionary messages that were deemed controversial at the time.

Fast forward to a 2019 study by the National Library of Medicine: “Health warnings have been shown to increase knowledge and awareness of health risks, influence social norms, and reduce consumption of tobacco products.”

An endorser of the bill is Dr. Tim Cermack, a psychiatrist and past president of the California Society of Addiction Medicine, who was also on the call.

“We were hoping that with the passage of Prop. 64 we would have a legal cannabis industry (without products) with contaminants,” Cermack said.

Dr. Roneet Lev, an emergency room doctor with Scripps Mercy, said she’s tired of responding to cases of “scromiting,” a new term created to describe patients who enter the emergency room screaming and vomiting.

“Every shift, we’d have to treat a case of marijuana poisoning,” Lev said. “California should be the lead in the country on consumer protections.”

Lev said THC can increase the risk of psychosis and suicide.

And Dr. Lynn Silver, also on the call, pointed to research conducted in 2019 by Lancet Psychiatry as the basis for the link between cannabis use and psychosis.

“It’s not your mama’s marijuana,” she said.

Silver, a senior adviser at the Public Health Institute, also mentioned another 2017 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

It “offers a rigorous review of scientific research published since 1999 about what is known about the health impacts of cannabis and cannabis-derived products – such as marijuana and active chemical compounds known as cannabinoids – ranging from their therapeutic effects to their risks for causing certain cancers, diseases, mental health disorders, and injuries,” Silver said.

But cannabis advocates insist these reports and anecdotal responses to the drug should be put into perspective.

Longtime advocate and emergency room doctor Larry Bedard in Marin County cited the same 2017 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine study as conclusive “scientific evidence cannabis is beneficial for chronic pain,” a finding that overwhelms any small number of cases that may be related to injury or ailments.

“Every substance has its certain benefits and certain risks,” he said.

He calls the bill and claims of a link between psychotic behavior and cannabis use “a witch hunt.”

In the few decades of working in emergency rooms, the Marin General board member said many more problems arose from alcohol poisoning than cannabis misuse. He compared 10 cannabis patients needing treatment with “thousands” for alcohol.

Cannabis industry advocates and producers viewed the bill and assumption their products are harmful as an old way of thinking that will create waste and give the illicit market more reason to thrive while strangling the legal industry with yet more regulatory costs.

“SB 1097 is characteristic of a lot of ‘reefer madness’ type policies. The protect-the-children hysteria is taken to such absurd lengths that it ends up hurting the very communities it’s purporting to protect,” said Tiffany Devitt, chief of government affairs for CannaCraft, a large Santa Rosa producer.

Devitt referenced the addition of more restrictive policies as yet another hindrance to legal businesses trying to do the right thing at a time when the illicit market is thriving.

“What (the proposed changes) will do is create hundreds of thousands of waste every year, filling our landfills with unread brochures and unnecessarily bloated packaging,” she said. “This is the last thing the next generation needs.”

The California Cannabis Industry Association sent a letter dated March 25 to the Legislature, strongly opposing to the bill.

“Unfortunately, as written, SB 1097 would require cannabis producers to include unnecessary and duplicative warnings on all retail cannabis products,” the letter signed by Executive Director Lindsay Robinson read.

The letter declared that licensed cannabis products already “carry significant and effective warning labels,” for one thing.

“The licensed cannabis industry is proud of the high standards of testing and labeling of our products. While we appreciate the bill’s intent, its focus may be more effectively guided toward consumer education already in program and funded by cannabis tax revenues from the licensed market,” Robinson stated.

Susan Wood covers law, cannabis, production, tech, energy, transportation, agriculture as well as banking and finance. For 27 years, Susan has worked for a variety of publications including the North County Times, Tahoe Daily Tribune and Lake Tahoe News. Reach her at 530-545-8662 or susan.wood@busjrnl.com.

Current cannabis product labeling

“Government warning: This product contains cannabis, a schedule 1 controlled substance. Keep out of reach of children and animals. Cannabis products may only be possessed or consumed by persons 21 years of age or older unless the person is a qualified patient. The intoxicating effects of cannabis products may be delayed up to two hours. Cannabis use while pregnant or breastfeeding may be harmful. Consumption of cannabis products impairs your ability to drive and operate machinery. Please use extreme caution.”

This story has been updated.

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