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April 10, 2019

Legal cannabis a health balance, MGH doctor says

Photo/Grant Welker Dr. John Kelly, the founder and director of the Recovery Research Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital, talked about benefits and harms of the state's new recreational marijuana industry Wednesday at Anna Maria College.

A prominent addiction expert who leads a recovery center at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston spent roughly an hour talking about the benefits and harms of legal marijuana at Anna Maria College in Paxton on Wednesday.

Dr. John Kelly couldn’t reach a conclusion on whether legal cannabis in Massachusetts is generally good or bad.

“There are certain sweet spots,” said Kelly, the founder and director of the Recovery Research Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Full commercialization without regulations, for instance, can cut down on crime but drive up addiction rates. The opposite is true for prohibition, a realm where corporate profits could disappear but the black market explodes.

The middle ground, Kelly said, can lead to responsible use but with enough regulations on youth access or advertising.

“With psychoactive drugs, we have to be thoughtful and careful,” Kelly said. 

Kelly, a Harvard Medical School professor, highlighted for students and social workers the pros and cons of legal marijuana. Cannabis can be therapeutic but also addictive, he said. Many smoke it whether its legal or not, but studies have shown it to be connected to slower reaction times. If, like alcohol, it brings in more tax revenue, it could also lead to greater costs, as alcohol does with, say, traffic accidents.

Wednesday’s event included talks by Worcester District Attorney Joseph Early and top officials from Worcester police and school departments. It was held as cannabis shops begin opening for recreational sales in more locations across the state.

Cultivate, a shop in Leicester, was one of the first two legal shops to open on the East Coast when it began selling last November. Another, Caroline’s Cannabis, has opened in Uxbridge, and a third, Temescal Wellness, in Hudson.

Good Chemistry, another shop, is expected to open sometime this month in Worcester’s Canal District. Many others are in the works in Worcester and elsewhere as they work their way through local and state approval processes.

Anna Maria College had its own reasons for bringing Kelly and others to its Paxton campus for Wednesday’s event.

The school has developed a minor in addiction and recovery studies and is creating a Center for Addiction and Recovery, which Anna Maria envisions as a place where students, faculty, health experts and others can collaborate on ideas.

With the first shops in Massachusetts open just within the last five months, much remains unsettled on what health effects legal marijuana will have. The Cannabis Control Commission plans to monitor health research on marijuana use and its effects and has launched awareness campaigns about responsible use.

Legislative changes may still be on the way.

Two Central Massachusetts legislators, Sen. Michael Moore (D-Millbury) and Rep. Hannah Kane (R-Shrewsbury), were scheduled on Wednesday afternoon to present a proposal in Boston to create a task force to fight continued illegal marijuana sales.

State Rep. Jim O’Day (D-Worcester) said Wednesday he would like the state to consider raising the age of legal marijuana use to 25 from 21, and appealed to social workers at the Anna Maria event to give their insight.

“Your advocacy is critical,” O’Day said. “Your input is critical.”

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