The number of Hamiltonians visiting emergency departments for marijuana overdoses has more than tripled in six years.
The steady rise of acute cannabis poisoning from 2012 to 2017 chronicled in Hamilton’s proposed public health strategy for non medical cannabis is raising flags as the drug becomes legal in Canada on Oct. 17.
“The trend is currently in the wrong direction and that is before legalization,” said Jason Busse, associate director of McMaster University’s Centre for Medicinal Cannabis Research. “In total, those are not overly large numbers, but it is a concerning trend.”
Emergency department visits by Hamiltonians for mental health and behavioural disorders due to cannabis also jumped during the same period by nearly 18 per cent.
“We do know you can’t fatally overdose on cannabis but it is possible to become addicted,” Busse said. “Use of cannabis, particularly in adolescents and young adults, has been associated with early-onset psychosis. There is some observational data that suggests there could be some association between cannabis use and depression.”
The reason for the increasing emergency department visits isn’t given in the strategy going before the board of health Monday. But Busse suggests it’s likely increased use and higher potency of THC, which is one of the chemical compounds in cannabis responsible for the way the brain and body respond to the drug including the high and intoxication.
“When you look at what is available illicitly out there, the preparations are not standardized. They can be contaminated and the percentage of THC that they contain can be quite substantial.”
In addition, marijuana edibles can take one to three hours to have an effect, which can make inexperienced users believe they need to consume more to get high.
“Individuals that are used to feeling a very quick effect from cannabis when they smoke it, might take a lot more than they need and intend,” said Busse. “When it all becomes active, they find themselves in a situation where they have overdosed”
Busse calls the public health strategy “quite reasonable” and predicts it could make a big difference to preventing overdoses.
“Ideally, as we move into legalization with more standardized products, hopefully safer products and taking funds that have traditionally gone to legal enforcement and moving that into education, prevention and safe storage, I would really hope to see these numbers go down.”
The overall health impacts for cannabis are smaller than for alcohol and tobacco but still considerable, concludes the strategy.
“We do support legalization,” said Michelle Baird, director of epidemiology, wellness and communicable disease control division at public health. “However, our key message would be that just because something is legal doesn’t mean it is necessarily good or safe for you and cannabis isn’t without risk.”
The strategy proposes multiple education and awareness campaigns over the next two to three years, particularly targeting those most at risk such as youth, pregnant women and those with a history of mental health issues.
It also aims to teach adults how they can help prevent drug use in youth as well as how to store their own cannabis to keep it away from children.
Public Health Services proposes to work with licensing and bylaw services to create policies around where pot stores can locate and how to keep them at safe distances from each other, schools, parks and community centres.
In addition, it includes identifying gaps in treatment and collecting data to show social and health impacts.
“We’re really promoting a culture of moderation,” said Baird.
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