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California sees increase in cannabis-related ER visits by older adults

To most pot smokers the adverse effects of marijuana just mean a bad trip. Maybe you get a little scared or paranoid.

But, for some older folks, the effects are more serious and they end up in the hospital. A UC San Diego study of California hospital data found a 1,804% increase in cannabis-related emergency room visits among people older than 65 from 2005 to 2019.

Benjamin Han is a medical professor at UCSD who treats older adults. He authored a study of the trend, published this month in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

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We used that data, and we tracked the trends going back as far as 2005 to 2019, and we saw a really sharp increase in the number of people in this age group coming to the emergency department,” Han said.

Interestingly, the rate of increase began to slow in 2017, as California was preparing to legalize recreational marijuana following the passage of Proposition 64.

Han said the data didn’t show which conditions put these people in the hospital. But, as a geriatrician, he’s seen it happen in patients who have used cannabis edibles for chronic pain or difficulty sleeping.

“I see patients later, and they said: ‘I used a gummy, and nothing happened.’ And they don’t know much about the doses,” Han said. “So then they say: ‘I took a lot more and then, two hours later, my heart is racing — I’m so anxious I don’t know what’s going on!’ And they end up in the emergency department.”

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Han said the scientific literature identified many adverse effects of cannabis, including impaired attention leading to accidents or falls, worsening of cardiovascular disease and cannabis-induced psychosis.

He said he wanted to expand his study of the effects of cannabis on older people. A new study will reach out to them to learn more about the conditions that led to their emergency room visits.