Doctors believe health dangers of marijuana are being overlooked
Yampa Valley Medical Center sees surge in patients with marijuana intoxication
Steamboat Springs — The legalization of marijuana and the opening of medical and recreational shops in Routt County have led to a significant increase in hospital patients experiencing side effects from the drug.
There’s been a surge in the number of marijuana-intoxicated patients, who are entering the emergency department at Yampa Valley Medical Center, including those who have unintentionally eaten or over-consumed marijuana edibles.
About one person per week visits the emergency department solely for marijuana intoxication, a diagnosis unheard of a decade ago, according to attending physician Nate Anderson, who specializes in emergency medicine.
Symptoms might include paranoia, anxiety or a repetitive vomiting syndrome.
The rise in pot-intoxicated patients began sometime after the first medical dispensary opened in town in 2009, Anderson said.
“In the past, marijuana in itself was not that big of an issue,” he said. “Once that availability began to increase, that’s when it became a problem. It really started to take off.”
Anderson said patients are male and female and range from high school age to older middle-aged people, similar to the demographic that would visit the emergency room for alcohol intoxication. He’s yet to treat elderly patients or children for marijuana intoxication, but others have.
“We have clearly seen a change in the complications of marijuana use,” said physician Dave Wilkinson, who oversees the emergency department at Yampa Valley Medical Center. “We’ve seen people unknowingly ingest it, and they’ve ended up in the emergency department, including pediatrics,”
The observations by YVMC doctors are on point with a January report in the Journal of the American Medical Association outlining the effects of marijuana use, including the onset of cyclical vomiting syndrome, unintentional overdose of edibles, anxiety and panic attacks.
The report, “The Implications of Marijuana Legalization in Colorado,” includes statistics on visits to the University of Colorado’s emergency department, where 10 to 15 of its 2,000 weekly patients are there for marijuana-associated illnesses and another one or two strictly for marijuana intoxication.
YVMC does not report on the number of people arriving at the emergency department with symptoms related to the use of marijuana, and hospital officials believe data in such a report might be skewed by an increase in people seeking treatment simply because marijuana is legal, when they wouldn’t have if the drug were still illegal in the state.
Some of the adverse reactions or edible overdoses could be prevented by more education on the consumer’s part, according to Rocky Mountain Remedies co-owner Kevin Fisher.
Fisher said that provisioning agents, or bud-tenders, in his dispensary are taught to spot the new and naïve users and teach them about dosage and the onset of effects — knowledge that could prevent them from landing in the emergency department.
“There’s an educational aspect. We start with the one thing we do know, that no one is going to realistically reach the lethal dosage,” Fisher said. “It will increase your blood pressure, it will increase your heart rate.”
Without knowledge of these typical effects, panic might be the instinctual reaction from a novel user, Fisher said.
As for the idea that chronic users are developing a cyclical vomiting syndrome, Fisher is dismissive. He said he knows of only one study on the syndrome’s connection to marijuana, and another that contradicts its findings.
“I would put that in the category of unsubstantiated and alarmist,” he said.
One of the greatest concerns, shared by Anderson and pediatrician Steven Ross, is the adverse health effects of marijuana on young users with a developing brain.
The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that the consequences of short- and long-term recreational marijuana use in adolescents include impaired short-term memory, decreased concentration and attention span and alterations in motor control, coordination, judgment and reaction time.
“The big concern we have is that even just partial use can effect a child’s memory,” said Ross, a physician at Sleeping Bear Pediatrics in Steamboat Springs.
Ross said he’s concerned that marijuana has been publicly portrayed as safer than it is.
“They’re making it sound like a harmless pleasure with no side effects,” Ross said.
At YVMC, a new educational campaign is underway to educate pregnant and nursing mothers about the dangers of using marijuana when pregnant or when breastfeeding — both of which aren’t recommended by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and numerous healthcare agencies.
Patients are also educated about the potential effects of using marijuana along with prescription medications, which has received limited study.
Citing federal law, the hospital doesn’t allow the use of any marijuana on its premises.
Anderson said he’s afraid that the public has formed opinions on the safety of marijuana based on campaigns by dispensaries that stand to gain a profit from the drug’s popularity.
“Somehow, public health entities have allowed those with a financial stake to take over the debate,” Anderson said. “The misinformation is leading people to make poor decisions.”
If recreational marijuana follows a similar path as tobacco, it could take decades before the public truly understands potential health effects, Anderson said.
In tobacco’s case, even doctors were smoking in the post-World War II era, naïve to the dangers of cigarettes, Anderson said.
“It took years before the surgeon general put together warnings,” he said.
Anderson believes marijuana was legalized before it was properly studied, and he’d like to see more clearly labeled marijuana products to inform users of what they’re ingesting and what the drug might do before it lands them in the emergency department with side effects.
Fisher said that such protections are now in place, with product manufacturers required to limit items to a 10-milligram dose, or clearly label the package if multiple doses are inside.
“It’s the wild west out there,” Anderson said. “The regulations of it are really limited, you don’t know what you’re getting and it’s being promoted likes it’s benign. This stuff was unleashed on an unsuspecting populace before the proper safeguards were in place.”
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