Marijuana on display at the illegal dispensary
Marijuana flowers on display at an illegal dispensary in El Cajon. Courtesy San Diego Sheriff

Cannabis products should carry a warning and consumer protections like tobacco and alcohol. One of the warnings is that the key ingredient THC has a risk of suicide.

That’s why Senate Bill 1097, the Cannabis Right to Know Act, is a step in the right direction for consumer protection.

California has not passed any consumer protection laws on the cannabis industry since Proposition 64 legalized marijuana. In contrast, Colorado passed public health protection on marijuana concentrates.

The act “requires the Colorado School of Public Health to do a systematic review of the scientific research related to the possible physical and mental health effects of high-potency THC marijuana and concentrates.”

A National Institutes of Health study suggests a link between cannabis use and higher suicide ideation, plan and attempt levels. In short, there appears to be a vital link between cannabis use and suicide in young adults.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people aged 10 to 34 in the United States.

Kevin Bright started using marijuana when he was 15. He considered marijuana his medicine and ingested higher and higher amounts of THC. He became dependent and developed cannabis-induced psychosis. Before committing suicide, he said, “Cannabis has ruined my life.” He was 29.

His parents Bart and Hazel now work with Mar-Anon, a fellowship to help loved ones affected by another person’s cannabis use. It uses the techniques of Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon, but for marijuana. They support over 700 people and are growing.

While many people are aware of the issue of suicide, few realize that there is an association with cannabis use, especially with high potency THC varieties.

Kevin’s death gives a face to the connection between cannabis and suicide. The National Institutes of Health study analyzed a survey of over 280,000 young adults aged 18 to 35, showing that cannabis use was associated with increased risk of suicide, a suicide plan, and a suicide attempt. The study showed that “even people who used cannabis nondaily, fewer than 300 days a year were more likely to have suicidal ideations and plan to attempt suicide more than those who did not use the drug at all.”

Colorado keeps a suicide data dashboard that tracks the rising incidence of suicide. For ages 15 to 18, marijuana was present in 23.9% of deaths — nearly double alcohol presence.

In 2020 the San Diego County Medical Examiner reported 39% of completed suicides in ages under 25 tested positive for THC, also more than for alcohol.

The science in understanding suicide and cannabis risk begins with knowledge of human brain development. The brain continues to grow until the mid-twenties. It selects which neuronal pathways to keep and which to prune.

It also continues to gain myelin, the white matter coating for brain cells. Susceptibility to addiction to any drug is up to 7 times higher during the development of the brain compared to later adult life.

Data shows that today’s cannabis is much more potent than in the 1980s. While THC flower potency was less than 2% in the 1980s, today’s cannabis flower has been genetically engineered to an average of 17% potency.

California dispensaries sell THC concentrates with up to 95% potency. These high-potency products have an increased risk of psychosis.

The FDA label for Marinol, a low potency THC available by prescription, includes a warning that the drug can cause neuropsychiatric adverse reactions.

Psychosis is a symptom of the impaired ability to distinguish reality. Symptoms can include commanding voices in the head that harass individuals, chase them, and cause them to run or end their own lives.

Jolo Alonzo-Talay developed his first psychotic episode while attending the Coachella Festival. The night of his death, he used cannabis for his anxiety, thinking it would calm him down. Instead, he developed psychosis, snuck out of a psychiatric facility, and ended his life by jumping in front of traffic. The Cal State Long Beach student was 22.

Jeffrey Trevillyan was a retired Los Angeles Sheriff’s Deputy serving with distinction and honor for 30 years. He wanted to get off opioids and was convinced to try high potency THC. He became addicted immediately and developed cannabis-induced psychosis. He committed suicide by cutting his own throat. He was 62.

Cannabis addiction or withdrawal can be associated with depression that may lead to suicide.

Johnny Stack had a happy life, a 4.0 GPA, and a college scholarship. Three days before he took his life, he wrote his mother, “You told me marijuana would hurt my brain. It’s ruined my mind and my life, and I’m sorry. I love you.” He was 19.  Johnny’s parents started Johnny’s Ambassadors, educating parents and teens about the risks of today’s high-THC marijuana on brain development, mental illness, and suicide.

Every Brain Matters has a memorial that honors the lives lost due to marijuana by suicide, psychosis, car crashes, cannabis hyperemesis syndrome, vaping, and overdoses.

Marijuana became legal in California by popular vote but with that mandate comes an obligation to warn of the risks. Cigarettes have a warning label. Alcohol has a warning label. Marijuana should come with a warning label as well.

People have a right to be informed of the science behind the risks of high potency THC. Suicide is one of those risks.

Dr. Roneet Lev is an emergency and addiction physician, Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego. She is the former chief medical officer for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.