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Marijuana Tourists Mean More Visits To California ERs

 December 19, 2019 at 10:23 AM PST

Speaker 1: 00:02 When California voters legalized recreational marijuana in 2016 some worried about the impact on teen use and emergency rooms and today's installment of our week long series, high hopes California's prod experiment KPBS reporter Claire tragus or examines how these concerns are panning out. Speaker 2: 00:20 San Diego has long been a favorite spot for tourists who come for it, surfing beaches and parks. But for the past couple of years, tourists have also been coming for something else. Speaker 1: 00:34 Legal marijuana and that has contributed to a bump in emergency room visits, says Dr. Richard Clark, an emergency physician and director of medical toxicology at UC San Diego Speaker 3: 00:46 tourists or visitors to California will often come in and want to try it because they can get it here so much easier than they can in their own, uh, geographical location and they won't have the experience that many local users have with it and may accidentally use too much. Speaker 1: 01:03 That's particularly true with edible marijuana like gummies or brownies that take longer to have an effect, which leads some people to eat too much. Of course, Clark says it's not just tourists who make this mistake. He sees plenty of locals too Speaker 3: 01:19 nail develop what looks like a bit of an anxiety reaction and their heart rate will be high and they will say, I don't feel right. They may be dizzy and in a lot of distress, Speaker 1: 01:31 state data shows since marijuana was legalized, emergency room visits for cannabis poisoning have gone up by 35% in San Diego County. At the same time, Clark and many other doctors don't see this as the health crisis. Many feared they aren't seeing a spike in serious pot related accidents or illnesses. Instead, it's mainly been a lot of people who simply need time for the drug to wear off. Speaker 3: 01:59 There's not a lot of specific treatment that we need to do for them and a lot of times if we just watch them in a a nice, calm environment, they're better in an hour or two. Speaker 1: 02:12 However, while the risk of long lasting effects from a pot overdose might be overstated, the risk of becoming addicted is understated. Says dr Kai MacDonald, the medical director at lasting recovery, a San Diego addiction treatment center. When you take people who use cannabis daily and lock them in a hotel and ask them how they feel they have withdrawal symptoms. The risks are most pronounced among teens. He says not only is cannabis addiction a real condition, but research shows that in States where marijuana is legal, addiction Rose 25% among 12 to 17 year olds and studies have repeatedly shown marijuana has a negative impact on the development of teenagers. Addiction goes up in a very vulnerable subgroup. That's the best data we have that cannabis legalization means that there's more out there. Data from San Diego County show that the percentage of youth treated for marijuana addiction increased by about 5% among adults who see County funded treatment, marijuana is low on the list of the most popular drug of choice behind alcohol, heroin, and meth. The adult use numbers show why the public health focus should be on the harder drugs. Says Dalen young, the political director for the association of cannabis professionals. Speaker 3: 03:37 In any of those increased ER visits, there have been zero fatalities. Speaker 1: 03:42 He says the law should allow for places where people can go to safely ingest marijuana so they don't take too much and that matches advice from Richard Clark, the ER doctor. Speaker 3: 03:54 If you're going to try and edible, I think you need to start at a lower dose till you know what your reaction is going to be or to, you know, how it makes you feel Speaker 1: 04:02 and then wait before trying more. But as long as San Diego continues to be a top tourist destination, Dr. Clark expects some people could spend part of their vacation in the ER and not just because they wiped out on a surfboard. Claire and Sarah KPBS news to see all of the stories in our series, go to K KPBS reporter Taren Minto contributed to this report.

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Emergency room visits are up 35% in San Diego County and 49% statewide since voters legalized recreational marijuana in 2016, data show. But doctors say many patients are simply inexperienced pot users who aren't in significant danger.
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