Clearing the Air Around Marijuana Legalization

By Susan McDonald

Ask Dr. Godfrey Pearlson his thoughts on the recent legalization of recreational marijuana in Connecticut, and he literally has a book full of things to say.

Director of the Olin Neuropsychiatry Research Center at the Institute of Living, he has been investigating marijuana use, its side effects, legal ramifications, impact on driving and other related issues for much of his career.

In 2020, Dr. Pearlson published the book Weed Science: Cannabis Controversies and Challenges, a popular science tome that relays personal experimentation with hashish on his 20th birthday through the ensuing 50 years as marijuana segued from a “pariah drug” to a substance two-thirds of American adults want legalized for recreational use.

“The real challenge these days is separating fact from fiction from what has yet to be proven regarding marijuana,” Dr. Pearlson said.

In the decades leading up to Connecticut’s legalization decision, he said people have worried about everything from addiction potential (somewhat valid), to impact on coronary artery disease (no epidemiological link), to ways to identify cannabis-impaired drivers (research is ongoing), to its potential for triggering psychosis (chronic use in adolescents is connected with psychosisrelated syndromes).

There are more questions than answers,” he said simply, adding that, “More users equal more problems.”

Over more than 300 pages in Weed Science, Dr. Pearlson details the biological reaction cannabis has in the human body, long-appreciated benefits from medicinal use and increased potential for addiction, especially for teens.

“Traditional uses of medical marijuana are for treating pain and inflammation, epilepsy, movement disorders, memory disorders, insomnia and anxiety,” he noted, citing a 1999 Institute of Medicine report.

Use — either smoking, “vaping” or the intake of products like edibles or tinctures containing THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis — is not without concern, however, and Weed Science outlines a variety of harm minimization steps Dr. Pearlson believes are needed with legalization of the drug. (See list below).

“My biggest concern …. is that potent extracts with attractive flavorings aimed at teens (will be) marketed for use in small, pocket-sized, inconspicuous e-cigarettes, ostensibly to adult consumers,” he said. “These products then rapidly disseminate into an enormous teen marketplace, where use multiplies quickly with short- and long-term adverse health consequences.”

Like other medications on the market, cannabis should be examined closely and dispensed with instructions and guidance, he began.

“Harm minimization and reduction must be studied … and there should be a list developed of individuals for whom the drug is unsuitable, such as people with established schizophrenia or bipolar disorder,” Dr. Pearlson explained. “How can we best formulate plans and policies to minimize potential harms and make cannabis use as safe as possible?”

Dr. Pearlson’s research team, including Dr. Michael Stevens and others, is part of a world-wide effort to ensure safety around legalized marijuana use. His niche is impaired driving, and how to help law enforcement recognize and prove impaired vehicle use in the field.

Dr. Godfrey Pearlson, director of the Olin Neuropsychiatry Research Center, wrote “Weed Science: Cannabis Controversies and Challenges.”

Harm Reduction Measures Outlined in Dr. Pearlson's Book Include:

  • Setting age limits on cannabis sales, with significant penalties for underage sales. While neurobiology dictates the best age is 25, he said 21 would be more practical.
  • Limiting drug potency, although he added it could inadvertently encourage an illicit market for high-potency substances.
  • Reducing cannabis consumption rates by limiting the amount of product sold to individuals during a single sale, restricting sale locations and limiting advertising.
  • Ensuring product uniformity and safety with national standards and quality testing.
  • Pricing product appropriately. Adding too much tax will drive consumers back to unregulated illegal suppliers.
  • Teaching youth facts about use, especially those at high-risk for psychosis based on family history.
  • Reducing marijuana-impaired driving with evolving technology and public safety advertisements.
  • Change drug laws and policies, incorporating restorative justice elements.
  • Testing for acute performance-impairing effects of drugs in the workplace to prevent injuries due to cognitive impairment. Portable test devices can establish cognitive baselines.