One of the primary arguments from opponents of marijuana legalization is that legal cannabis will endanger the youth of America and cause an exponential rise in injuries and fatalities. Needless to say, this is unlikely, to say the least; most evidence shows that if cannabis is consumed responsibly, one of the only significant health risks is that you may find Family Guy funny. But the key word here is “responsibly,” and apparently, some people are not being responsible when it comes to edibles consumption.
According to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine on Tuesday, a surprisingly high number of emergency room visits during a four-year period in the state of Colorado were due to people ingesting marijuana in the form of edibles (i.e. candies or pastries). The researchers at the UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital assessed the frequency of cannabis-related emergency room visits in the state of Colorado after it passed a 2012 measure legalizing the sale of marijuana. Between the years of 2012 and 2016, the study looked at almost 10,000 emergency room visits at the hospital that patients said were related to cannabis, of which about a quarter were actually related to cannabis.
Following the legalization measure, the number of cannabis-related emergency room visits increased almost three times. Although a majority of the visits were attributable to smoking pot the old-fashioned way (i.e. inhaling), about 10 percent of cannabis-related ER visits were attributable to edibles, even though edibles only comprised a very small percentage of overall cannabis sales. Consuming edibles also seemed to be more frequently linked to extreme side effects. About 18 percent of people who came in after ingesting edibles reported experiencing “acute psychiatric symptoms” such as panic attacks and psychosis, versus 10 percent who reported such symptoms after smoking pot.
Popular on Rolling Stone
To an extent, none of this is particularly surprising: although data shows that marijuana use in Colorado has gone up consistently before and after legalization, it makes sense that legalization would increase the number of people willing to experiment with cannabis products — and that some of these people would use these products in excess, or consume them irresponsibly. This was originally lead author Andrew Monte’s explanation for the study’s results. “My initial hypothesis was that people were stacking doses and getting too high of a dose,” Monte said via email to Rolling Stone. “But after analyzing these data, I actually think it is that adverse symptoms from edible consumption last longer than when people smoke. This leads to more opportunity to say, ‘I need to go the the ER.'”
But before you start panicking and throwing your latest batch of weed brownies down the garbage disposal, it’s worth noting that the study has some obvious limitations. For starters, Erik Altieri, the executive director of NORML, points out that the study focused on a single (albeit large) hospital in Colorado, “so it is far from a comprehensive analysis that could indicate a trend,” he tells Rolling Stone. And like many other studies that have pointed to a correlation between weed use and psychosis, this study did not establish causation, meaning that it did not differentiate between whether edibles can cause “acute psychiatric symptoms,” and whether people who are prone to such symptoms to begin with are simply at heightened risk of adverse effects.
Additionally, Altieri says that such adverse effects, while they do happen, are both rare and extremely temporary. “While we support increased public education and enhanced labeling to inform consumers about how to responsibly consume edibles and in what doses, it is important to note that the overwhelming majority of ER cases related solely to marijuana result in the patient simply being hydrated and let go in an hour or two,” said Altieri.
Ultimately, the takeaway from this study, as well as many others, is that more federally funded research is needed to determine the link between edibles and adverse psychiatric effects. Given that the U.S. Department of Justice is currently reportedly roadblocking such research, that seems unlikely for the time being, so in the interim, if you’re curious about edibles, just err on the side of caution and don’t gobble an entire batch of weed blondies in one sitting.