Marijuana-Related Illness Is Appearing in ERs Everywhere—Especially in States Where It’s Legal

The wave of states legalizing or semi-legalizing marijuana has generated both praise and controversy for legislators and legalization advocates across the U.S.

But a relatively new illness which has started appearing in the nation’s emergency rooms has many worried, no matter which side of the debate they fall on.

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The mysterious illness— called cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome— has been more prominent in states which have legalized marijuana, but everywhere the symptoms are the same— patients complain of severe abdominal pain and violent vomiting.

Though CHS is a poorly-understood illness, doctors and scientists have determined that it is linked to heavy, long-term marijuana use. And for reasons unknown, the one thing that’s been proven to relieve its symptoms is a hot bath or shower— something that’s given important clues to doctors attempting to diagnose patients complaining of the symptoms.

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The correlation between the increase in CHS cases nationally and the relaxing of marijuana laws on the state and federal levels has been brought to light in a study co-authored by Dr. Kennon Heard.

Dr. Heard, a physician at the University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora, tells CBS News that since his state made cannabis legal for recreational use, CHS cases have become much more common, claiming:

“My colleagues are seeing this on a daily to weekly basis.”

Dr. Heard also says that since 2009, when the federal government loosened restrictions on medical marijuana, ER diagnoses in two of Colorado’s hospitals has almost doubled. Heard told the Denver Channel that while CHS is still poorly understood, one theory as to its cause seems to hold the most water:

“The science behind it is not clear. The most likely cause is that people using marijuana frequently and in high doses have changes in the receptors in their body, and those receptors become dysregulated in some way, and it starts causing pain.”

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Dr. David Steinbruner, an ER physician at Memorial Hospital in Colorado Springs, said that CHS is likely caused by heavy, long-term use, likening it to alcohol abuse:

“The corollary would be alcohol. So small amounts may be fine for people, but over a long time it will cause all kinds of problems.”

CHS can have serious long-term effects; the illness can lead to kidney failure. But notably, symptoms of CHS disappear within a few days of abstinence from cannabis use, which Dr. Steinbruner says is the only known long-term cure for CHS— for now:

“Patients are given IV fluids and medication to resolve the vomiting and help with the pain. But the treatment is really to stop using marijuana, or at least to cut back severely, and that’s really the only way to make it better.”

Of course, it’s worth noting that cannabis has been proven by scientific studies to have numerous uses in pain management, reduction of symptoms, and possibly even cures in many diseases—most prominently glaucoma, epilepsy, anxiety disorders, Alzheimer’s, and multiple sclerosis, to name a few.

But whether the risks of legalization outweigh the benefits is something that is sure to be debated for some time.

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