Physician, ex-senator scares Utah lawmakers about dangers of cannabis use during pregnancy, adolescence

FILE - This April 15, 2017 file photo shows marijuana plants for sale at the ShowGrow dispensary a medical marijuana provider in downtown Los Angeles. California's struggling legal cannabis industry is expected to grow next year to $3.1 billion, but it remains far outmatched by the state's thriving illegal market. A report released Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019, finds consumers are spending roughly $3 in the state's underground pot economy for every $1 in the legal one. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel,File)

State lawmakers will explore tightening the rules for medical marijuana use among children and pregnant or lactating mothers.

The legislative Health and Human Services Interim Committee on Wednesday agreed to take on the issue, following a presentation about the dangers of cannabis for “vulnerable populations.”

Brian Shiozawa, a former state senator and physician at University of Utah Health, referenced a study showing that maternal cannabis use led to a 50% increased likelihood of low birth weight — which comes with greater risk of intensive care admission, neonatal death, cerebral palsy, developmental delay and other conditions.

If lactating mothers ingest THC, the main psychoactive compound in cannabis, the chemical stays in their breast milk for about a week, Shiozawa said. Exposure to the substance can put newborns at risk of hyperactivity and poor cognitive function.

"This is a bad drug in pregnancy and in breastfeeding," he told the legislative panel.

(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) This Oct. 27, 2017, file photo shows then-Utah Sen. Brian Shiozawa speaking at the Whitmore Library in Cottonwood Heights. Shiozawa, a physician, returned to Capitol Hill Wednesday to warn about the potential health risks for pregnant women and lactating mothers using cannabis.

Yet, the general perception is that marijuana is a safe substance, with dispensaries in other states at times recommending cannabis to pregnant women without hesitation, he said.

For adolescents, marijuana use can affect brain development and is linked to mental health dangers ranging from depression to psychotic disorders and schizophrenia, he said. And compared to adults, teens are at greater risk of forming a dependency on the substance, according to Shiozawa.

“Dr. Shiozawa, If you’re trying to scare me and the public about the use of marijuana, you’ve done an excellent job,” said Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, said after the physician wrapped up his remarks.

But Connor Boyack, cannabis advocate and president of the libertarian Libertas Institute, said the state’s current medical marijuana law contains safeguards tailored to these vulnerable populations.

Doctors aren’t allowed to recommend marijuana treatments to ease morning sickness, he noted. Safeguards for minors are also built into the law, which requires that a state-appointed panel of physicians signs off on cannabis treatment for anyone younger than 21.

Boyack said he and other cannabis advocates are willing partners in mitigating risks to vulnerable populations but "we would very much caution against any type of overreaction" or getting between the doctor-patient relationship.

The panel’s co-chairman, Rep. Brad Daw, noted that the conversation came just days after lawmakers met in a special session to strengthen the state’s cannabis program so it can ramp up on schedule.

“I think the stated goal is, we want to see medical cannabis get to patients who can benefit from it,” Daw, R-Orem, said. “What has not been said and what really needs to come out is there are times when cannabis ... might really cause some problems.”

While a committee majority voted to open a bill file on the issue, several Democratic lawmakers dissented. Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City, said the issue was important to discuss, but argued any potential legislation would be more appropriate coming from an individual lawmaker rather than from the committee.

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