Sep 21, 2023 - News

McHenry County pot dispensaries must warn of mental health risks

Illustration of a marijuana plant growing through a "no" symbol.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

McHenry County state's attorney Patrick Kenneally is touting "first-in-the-country" rules that require marijuana dispensaries in his county to prominently display signs warning that "cannabis use may contribute to mental health problems."

Why it matters: With little federal involvement in legal pot regulations, the move highlights the evolving nature of cannabis regulation and echoes a growing battle cry for more consumer protections.

Driving the news: Starting this month, McHenry dispensaries have to post in-store signage warning of marijuana's potential link to "psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia, increased thoughts of suicide and suicide attempts, anxiety and depression."

  • Those that don't comply will face threats of consumer fraud suits from Kenneally.

The big picture: California legislators considered, but didn't pass, a bill last year to mandate cannabis labels warning of potential mental health risks.

  • Illinois is among several states that already require different health warning labels for marijuana similar to nicotine warnings.

What he's saying: Kenneally wrote this month in a Tribune op-ed that a "growing body of research" suggests "cannabis can … initiate and worsen depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety and suicidal ideation, especially in young people."

  • The conservative Republican state's attorney cites a record-high number of suicides in McHenry County last year.
  • "About half our recent homicides involve cannabis or cannabis-induced psychosis, [and] cases of driving while under the influence of cannabis have doubled," he writes.
  • Kenneally alleges that Illinois officials don't highlight these issues in order to protect lucrative weed tax revenue.

The other side: "Legalizing adult-use cannabis has always been about justice, safety, and equity in Illinois. The governor is disappointed to learn that the McHenry County state's attorney prefers focusing on spreading disinformation instead of tackling the issues that actually keep residents safe," the Illinois Cannabis Regulation Oversight Office tells Axios.

  • The ICROO and the governor's office didn't respond to Axios' requests to comment further.

A group of Democratic state lawmakers, including Rep. Kelly Cassidy and Sen. Heather Steans, issued a statement slamming Kenneally's op-ed, saying he "carelessly conflates cannabis use with the most complex societal issues that our own Illinois researchers, institutions, and community leaders work collectively every day to further understand and improve upon."

Context: The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration warns that studies have linked marijuana use to depression and anxiety, but notes that it's unknown "if marijuana use is the cause of these conditions."

  • The drug has also been difficult to research in a controlled environment since it is still illegal at a federal level.

Zoom in: Lurie Children's Hospital's chair of psychiatry John Walkup says he's seen cannabis-based products offer relief to some anxious patients, though for others cannabis exacerbated the situation.

  • He doesn't believe cannabis triggers mental health conditions, but he notes that elements of THC (the psychoactive compound of cannabis), "can directly exacerbate syndromes."
  • "So if you're struggling with depression, why would you want to give yourself a depressogenic drug?"
  • "I think it's worthwhile cautioning people," Walkup says.

What we're watching: Mayor Brandon Johnson's chief of policy, Umi Grigsby, tells Axios that "the city is aware of studies looking at whether there is a connection between cannabis and increased risk of mental health conditions and will continue to monitor and act responsibly with regard to implementation."


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