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Some politicians who supported legalizing marijuana now want to curb 'potent pot'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

As marijuana has gone mainstream in the U.S., lawmakers in states that legalized it are now grappling with what to do about concentrated versions of the drug, especially in light of mental health concerns. NPR's Martin Kaste has more.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Cannabis concentrates are oils, pastes and glassy solids which can be smoked or vaped or made into edibles. They're a growing share of the legal market and a popular topic for marijuana influencers on YouTube.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: That is insane.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Oh, take me to the danger zone on the first hit. OK.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: God, yeah.

KASTE: Yeah, concentrates are strong. Marijuana itself usually runs about 15% THC. That's the main compound that makes you high. Concentrates range upwards of 80%, and most states don't set an upper limit.

BETH EBEL: When people come in, they can look as if they have schizophrenia.

KASTE: Beth Ebel is a pediatrician in Seattle, and she's treated teens who've come to the ER after consuming concentrates.

EBEL: I've seen kids who have jumped off a balcony or jumped from heights with an acute psychotic break after the use of these high-potency products.

KASTE: A 2019 study in The Lancet found users of high-potency pot were five times more likely to have a first-time episode of psychosis. Other research points to an increased rate of schizophrenia. The risks are thought to be greater for young people, whose brains continue to develop into their 20s.

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MARY LOU DICKERSON: We know it spells serious trouble for a lot of people, adolescents and young adults especially.

KASTE: This is Mary Lou Dickerson testifying in January for a bill to raise the age to buy concentrates in Washington state up to 25. Dickerson's a former lawmaker and was part of the original effort to legalize marijuana.

DICKERSON: And I do not regret doing that. However, very high potency pot has been developed, a way different beast than the cannabis of 2014.

KASTE: But are concentrates really a different beast? Paul Armentano does not buy it.

PAUL ARMENTANO: This narrative combines the two historical tropes that prohibitionists have always used - marijuana will make you crazy, and this isn't your father's marijuana.

KASTE: Armentano is deputy director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. He says it makes no sense to regulate something differently just because it's stronger.

ARMENTANO: We don't have one age limit for Bacardi 151 and another age limit for beer. People can understand that there's distinctions between the potency of the products.

KASTE: He also doubts the links to psychosis, saying the Lancet study wasn't precise enough about THC levels. He and the cannabis industry warn that this is really just about bringing back prohibition, and at the state level, they're winning the argument. So far this year, efforts to cap the strength of pot products have died in Florida and in New Hampshire. And that bill in Washington state, it was gutted and no longer raises the minimum age. One of the sponsors, state Senator Jesse Salomon, is frustrated by the clout of the cannabis industry.

JESSE SALOMON: I supported the legalization of marijuana. I just never thought it would be so capitalistic as to disregard public health. You know, they've become pretty powerful.

KASTE: Another sponsor, State Representative Lauren Davis, remains optimistic. Her bill still requires cannabis stores to post warnings about the mental health risks of concentrates. She likens that to those signs in bars that warn pregnant women about drinking. It's more public awareness, she says, and that may yet lead to tighter regulations down the road.

Martin Kaste, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.