Dr. Christian Thurstone, director of behavioral health at Denver Health and professor of psychiatry at University of Colorado, held a media event in October warning North Carolinians not to repeat Colorado’s mistakes surrounding medical marijuana. He was invited to speak by the Triangle Christian Medical and Dental Associations in reaction to N.C. Senate Bill 711, the N.C. Compassionate Care Act.
The bill passed the state Senate 36-7 on third reading in June but did not move in the state House before session ended. A similar bill is likely to be introduced next session and could be considered in 2023.
Thurstone spoke for about 45 minutes and then gave those attending a chance to ask questions.
Thurstone’s main criticisms were that SB 711 allows marijuana in any form for patients, including powerful food products; allows marijuana as a treatment for too many conditions; allows for more than one caregiver to handle the drug; spreads distribution throughout the state, so counties don’t have the option of opting out like they do in Colorado; permits distributors to own more than one center, which led to commercialization of the marijuana business elsewhere; and allows those under 18 to receive marijuana if they have a signature from guardian without specifying safeguards to prevent forgery of signatures.
He said, “This bill is about creating an industry,” and is less about creating a compassionate new form of treatment available.
In the next section of his talk, which he called “The Colorado Experience,” Thurstone discussed what happened when his state did the same thing in 2009, saying, “We have some data about what you all would be getting into if you decide to go down this road.”
Thurstone went through a number of slides showing data about the immediate but temporary bump in those under 18 using marijuana after their bill passed and the more sustained increase of those 18-25 using marijuana (which is now at 32% compared to 23% in the U.S. overall).
Later he spoke about the boom in new powerful products like gummies and drinks that were legally available and advertised. Many of these products and strains have 20-30% THC, which is 10 times stronger than traditional marijuana which had 2% or 3% THC.
The “concerns” section of the speech was subtitled “cars and kids,” as those were the two main areas he said N.C. should keep in mind. For cars, he mentioned a spike in traffic accidents where the driver tested positive for marijuana, rising from 9% in 2009 to 21% in 2019 in Colorado. And despite jokes that high drivers are better because they drive slower, he said the evidence shows they have twice the risk of car accidents, due to difficulty staying in lane, slower reaction times, more weaving, and worse attention and distractibility scores.
For adolescents, Thurstone cited studies showing marijuana use during brain development causes an 8-point drop in IQ scores, a doubling of onset of psychosis, a drop in school performance, an increase in depression and suicide, and a spike in risks for further addiction.
His concern was that it would be impossible to keep the powerful products from a commercialized medical marijuana industry out of the hands of children and adolescents. Thurstone felt that the dangers to their medical and physical health were larger than most people realize and that in his time in emergency rooms and psychiatric practices, commercializing marijuana had caused a large negative impact on Colorado teens.
The N.C. bill was bipartisan, with wide support, and primary sponsor Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, told the Associated Press that “It is nothing more than trying to help those people with the care that they need and augment their treatments.”
The bill can be read below: