Marijuana is having a great year.
Since recreational marijuana sales became legal Jan. 1, retailers throughout Colorado have clamored to meet demand. Though we’re just weeks into the Age of Legal Weed, reports seem optimistic: Pot tourism is exploding; marijuana etiquette is going mainstream; cannabis cookbooks are the new publishing frontier.
But pot also is playing a starring role in Mercy Regional Medical Center’s emergency room, where every week, people show up because they can’t stop vomiting.
“I see it once or twice every week. They come in, they are miserable – absolutely miserable, just writhing with repetitive vomiting,” said Dr. David Hughes, an emergency room physician at the center.
The posh name for this marijuana-induced condition - whether from eating or smoking the drug – is cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome.
Since 2004, when doctors first described people suffering cyclic vomiting as a result of using marijuana in Adelaide Hills of South Australia, reports of the malady have spread throughout the world nearly as fast as the drug.
Cyclic vomiting is a burden to the health-care system, as it often leads to expensive diagnostic tests and ineffective treatments, according to findings presented in 2012 in two separate case reports at the American College of Gastroenterology’s 77th annual scientific meeting.
While it typically strikes people who use marijuana over the long term, one interesting aspect of marijuana-induced cyclic vomiting is usual anti-nausea drugs don’t work, Hughes said.
“The only way to treat it is with anti-psychotics. They are very effective. Then, usually, people feel better within 48 hours,” he said.
Hughes said many patients whom he has treated for uncontrollable vomiting from marijuana return to his care a few weeks later, seeking help for the same problem. The only long-term solution to the chronic malady is to abstain from the drug.
According to the World Health Organization, in this decade, cannabis abuse has grown faster than cocaine and opiate abuse. It calculates about 147 million people, or 2.5 percent of the world’s population, consume marijuana.
While some marijuana side effects are notorious – including sudden hunger, memory loss, apathy and gynecomastia or “man boobs” – they are not yet well understood by science.
Hughes said it has historically been difficult to study marijuana because the substance has usually been taken illicitly.
But he said the extent to which marijuana exacerbates underlying psychiatric issues is well known to Mercy’s emergency room physicians.
“Everyone who comes in for a psych evaluation has to take a urine and drug screen. It’s kind of a joke because everyone tests positive for THC in Durango,” he said. “In such a health-conscious community where gluten, red dye No. 5, high fructose corn syrup are anathemas, you would think that people would recognize that cannabis isn’t so wonderful and harmless.”