Weed Related Emergency Room Visits On the Rise

The number of weed related emergency room visits has increased in Colorado. Since marijuana was legalized in 2012, the number of people seeking emergency medical treatment for weed has risen. Dramatically.

Tourists Largely Responsible for Getting “Too High” and Going to the Hospital

Naysayers attribute emergency room visits to the “dangers” of cannabis. Others speculate the increase is due to inexperienced users trying pot for the first time.

It seems that the “others” are right. Out-of-state visitors are largely responsible for the increase in weed-related emergency room visits. Between 2012-2014, there was a 109 percent increase in emergency room visits by tourists for “marijuana-related” symptoms.

According to Dr. Andre Monte, assistant professor of emergency medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, “Visitors are less-experienced with Colorado cannabis products, which is more potent than what many have previously used. People are more likely to use the drug, and use it in excess, when visiting or on vacation.”

Monte also explains that there are three major categories linked to cannabis-use emergency room visits. These include:

  • Related complications such as motor vehicle accidents or cyclic vomiting
  • Increase of underlying conditions such as anxiety, depression, and psychosis
  • Acute intoxication that can result in anxiety and a racing heart

Experts believe cannabis education is key. “We really need to do a better job of educating the public about the possible adverse side effects of marijuana use and how to use the product appropriately,” says Dr. Howard Kim, emergency medicine physician at Northwestern Medicine. “If you’re going to visit a marijuana-legal state, you should be aware that there can be adverse side effects and you should probably use marijuana products in moderation.”

Increase in Teen Weed-Related Emergency Room Visits Rises Sharply

Out of state visitors aren’t the only ones ending up in the ER for cannabis. A study by Dr. Sam Wang found a sharp increase in teens seeking emergency services since legalization in 2012. He also noted the increase in hospital visits contrasts the evidence he found that teen use has not increased since legalization.

Wang’s study used hospital billing codes on patient’s charts and urine drug screens that came back positive for marijuana. Through the data he collected, Wang found 631 cannabis-related hospital visits in 2014. This was up from just 106 in 2005.

The number of teens who visited the hospital for weed who needed a psychiatric evaluation also increased during this time (65 in 2005 to 442 in 2014). Wang notes these numbers are “definitely significant” looking at the trend of increasing marijuana-related ER visits.

Why are More People Going to the Hospital for Weed?

The question of why we’re seeing more weed-related hospital visits is one many in the industry are asking. One of the main reasons is thought to be anxiety. While some cannabis strains are known to help with anxiety, others can have the opposite effect and cause anxiety or panic. Weed does affect everyone differently, after all.

According to Dr. Larry Bedard, former president of American College of Emergency Physicians, “The most common reason someone goes to the ER for a marijuana reaction is anxiety. Part of an anxiety reaction is you have an impending sense of doom. So, a lot of people come in (to the hospital) thinking they’re dying, when they’re actually having a panic attack. That’s very common. If you’re smoking a joint and suddenly you can’t breathe and your chest feels tight and you start to get numb and tingly, you start to think you’ve been poisoned.

Bedard went on to explain, “What happens is you’re hyperventilating, which changes the pH of your blood, and you can get a form of tetany, and that’s why people get numb and tingly. So a lot of the time you have to slow their breathing down. Usually people just need reassurance, talking them down.”

How then, are doctors handling weed-related patients that end up in the ER? Bedard notes that in many cases, it’s common to give the patient some type of sedative. Xanax or Valium tend to work good if a patient hasn’t been drinking. Most of the time however, he says that the best treatment is telling the patient they aren’t dying and keeping an eye on them until they feel better.

Even the federal government agrees that no one has ever overdosed and died from cannabis. The inexperienced user however, might think they’re dying. Especially those unaccustomed to the super-potent pot that’s now customary in legal states like Colorado. And if a person can’t calm down even knowing no one has died from a pot overdose, a trip to the ER might be exactly what it takes to find the reassurance they need.

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