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Health experts expect rise in pot-related ER visits after legalization

“We’re prepared to handle more calls about cannabis and to see more patients in the ER,” said Dr. Jenny Lu. a physician at Stroger Hospital.

A man smokes marijuana in Toronto, on Tuesday May 27, 2003.
Medical experts anticipate more marijuana-related emergency room visits after recreational pot become legal.
AP file photo

As Illinoisans prepared to legally buy weed for the first time, officials at Stroger Hospital geared up to treat those who inevitably have bad trips.

“We’re prepared to handle more calls about cannabis and to see more patients in the [emergency room],” said Dr. Jenny Lu, a physician at Stroger who doubles as a medical toxicologist at the Illinois Poison Center.

“The marijuana that you’re getting today is a lot different than what people were getting 10 or 20 years ago,” Lu said, adding the drug affects everyone differently.

Lu noted education about the sometimes powerful effects of marijuana is vital — especially for first-time users.

While there’s now a variety of ways to ingest weed, edible forms of cannabis can be particularly unpredictable. As a result, Lu suggested people “go small and low” when eating pot products.

Stroger hospital staff received additional training ahead of legalization taking effect, a hospital spokeswoman said.

Danny Chun, a spokesman for the Illinois Health and Hospital Association, said the association held meetings and webinars for hospitals to offer guidance on the new law.

“The first priority of hospitals, as always, is the safety of their communities and residents,” Chun said. ”We strongly encourage responsible consumption and remind everyone that today’s cannabis products are strong and should be used in moderation.”

Chun said an uptick in calls to the poison center is expected based on the experiences of other states that have legalized cannabis.

The hospital association urged members to review the Chicago Department of Public Health’s primer on legalization, which includes information on the impact of cannabis and tips on how to safely use the drug.

Cannabis-related ER visits tripled at one of Colorado’s biggest hospitals after the drug was first legalized for medical use in 2012, according to a study published in April in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

After analyzing nearly 10,000 cannabis-related cases from 2012 to 2016 at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora, Colorado, researchers found there was a higher number of visits associated with edible use than expected. Recreational pot was made legal in the state in 2014.

“Despite edible cannabis products accounting for a small proportion of the total number of cannabis products sold and used, they frequently contribute to [ER] visits and may be more toxic than inhalable products,” according to the study, which found individuals hospitalized after taking edibles often suffered from psychiatric symptoms.

Kevin Sabet, a former adviser in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, claimed today’s “super strength” marijuana — edible or otherwise — can have a damning effect on mental health and potentially lead to psychosis.

“It’s setting in motion things that could trigger a major mental illness down the road. And we’re seeing that more and more,” said Sabet, who now leads Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a group opposed to the legalization push in Illinois.

According to Sabet, Illinois can expect “to see increases in accidental poisonings where people go to the hospital for panic attacks.”

Lu said psychosis, paranoia and panic attacks are “at the extreme end” of what can be experienced.

She does expect to see more cases of cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome, a condition linked to chronic pot use that causes severe nausea and vomiting.

That prediction would fall in line with the findings of the UCHealth study, which showed a sizable portion of patients suffered from the condition after smoking cannabis.