DENVER (AP) – Five years after Colorado first legalized marijuana, a new study shows that the side effects of marijuana are sending more people into the emergency room.
Inhaled marijuana has caused the most serious problems at a major Denver-area hospital. Marijuana infused foods and sweets, called edible ones, also caused problems. Patients came to the emergency room with symptoms such as repeated vomiting, racing heart, and psychotic episodes.
The study, published Monday in the Annals of Internal Medicine, resulted from reports of tourists needing emergency care after swallowing many marijuana bullets.
"It was hard to know if it was just anecdotes or whether there was a real phenomenon," said lead author Andrew Monte of the University Hospital of Colorado at UCHealth.
Three deaths in Colorado linked to edible products also motivated the study.
Emergency records at Mount Hospital show a three-fold increase in marijuana cases since the state became the first to allow the sale of recreational marijuana in January 2014. Almost a third of patients were admitted to the hospital, evidence of serious symptoms, Monte said.
In 2012, the emergency room saw an average of one patient every two days with a problem caused by marijuana. By 2016, the count was two to three per day.
That is not enough to flood the emergency department, Monte said, but emphasizes an already overburdened system.
Most people can safely use marijuana, Monte said, but with their increased availability and higher concentrations of THC, "we may be seeing more adverse drug reactions," he said.
THC is the part of marijuana that attracts people.
A growing cannabis industry promotes the drug as a cure for everyone by minimizing the risks, said Dr. Erik Messamore, a psychiatrist at Northeast Ohio Medical University who was not involved in the research. More than 30 states now allow marijuana for at least medicinal use. New Jersey is debating becoming the 11th state to approve the recreation pot. The US government considers marijuana illegal.
"You can not trust the people who sell the drugs to be honest with the risk," Messamore said, calling for warning labels similar to tobacco products.
Confirmed edible testing is a problem. Across the state, they accounted for less than 1% of total cannabis sales as measured by THC content. However, 11% of visits to the emergency room were triggered by edible foods.
Monte said that the edibles are too dangerous to be part of the leisure market. Slow to kick, its effects last a long time for a good party drug, he said. They work best for those who want to use them as medicine.
However, information on safe dosage is lacking, as Arlene Galchinsky, a Denver resident, learned. She took a sticky marijuana of pain over a prescription narcotics, becoming so disoriented that her husband called paramedics. Galchinsky, 79, did not go to the ER, but the experience shook her.
"It was extremely scary," she said of the feeling. "When would that leave? It was so scary.
In the state-funded study, there were 2,567 emergency room visits at the Denver hospital caused by marijuana from 2012-2016. They are not just tourists; 9 of 10 cases were Colorado residents.
Seventeen percent of the visits were due to uncontrolled episodes of vomiting. Most of the time, it was inhaled marijuana, not inedible.
Twelve percent of the cases were for acute psychosis, in which people without a history of mental disorders lose contact with reality. This was most often seen with edibles.
Poisoning and heart problems were other common complaints.
In an editorial, Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, called for more research into the benefits and harms of marijuana. She and co-author Ruben Baler wrote that there is an "urgent need" for greater oversight of manufacturing and labeling as marijuana use increases with state legalization.
Monte, a medical toxicologist, does not use marijuana. "I'm too busy," he said. "I can not spend time being tall."