Winnipeg's paramedics and firefighters responded to 41 incidents involving cannabis edibles in 2019, nearly double the number from the year before.
According to data shared by the city, the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service recorded 22 incidents in which cannabis edibles were a patient's chief complaint in 2018. Almost all incidents in both years involved just one patient, but a single incident in each year involved two patients.
"While we are unable to confirm the reason for the increase from 2018 to 2019, one potential reason may be the patients' willingness to disclose using the drug now that it is legal," wrote a city spokesperson in an emailed statement.
True incident numbers might actually be higher because a patient's chief complaint may be reported as a symptom of what they're feeling (shortness of breath, chest tightness, dizziness, etc.), noted the spokesperson.
Government-regulated cannabis edibles started arriving at licensed Manitoba cannabis stores in December, although they've been widely available on the illicit market for years.
In 2020, the WFPS had responded to two edibles-related incidents as of Jan. 10. The data provided by WFPS does not reveal the ages of the patients nor the outcomes of their cases.
Dr. Joss Reimer, medical director for population and public health with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, warned against inferring a trend from two years of data.
"Is it just a one-year spike that will come back down again? Is it by chance or is there truly an increase that's related to the legalization (of cannabis)?" she said.
"I would question whether it reflects a true increase, or does it reflect more peoples' willingness to disclose that they used a legal substance, compared to when it was illegal."
Even if the rate of emergency incidents related to cannabis edibles in Winnipeg is truly on the rise, Reimer said it wouldn't be surprising.
"Because that's what we saw in Colorado and Washington after they legalized (non-medical cannabis). An increased use in emergency services was something that we were hoping wouldn't occur, but certainly recognizing might."
Although the increase in emergency calls related to cannabis edibles might seem alarming, "It's still fairly small numbers for the population of Winnipeg," said Lynda Balneaves, associate professor of nursing with the University of Manitoba and deputy director of the Canadian Consortium for the Investigation of Cannabinoids research group.
Like Reimer and the city spokesperson, Balneaves said the increase could be related to increased disclosure of cannabis use following legalization. She said it's also possible it was driven by increased interest in cannabis surrounding legalization in October 2018.
"We saw blogs on how to cook with cannabis, how to bake with cannabis, and so we may have seen more individuals that were aware of these products and were interested in trying them," she said.
Regardless of the cause, Balneaves said the numbers demonstrate the importance of public education around safely consuming cannabis-infused food.
"I think for people that are naive to them, they often don't understand how cannabis impacts us when it's ingested, it's different than when we consume it through an inhaled route," she said.
"So, for example, people don't realize that you should wait between 60 to 90 minutes between (doses) of edibles to see what the effect is."
The Liquor, Gaming and Cannabis Authority of Manitoba, which regulates retail cannabis stores, has been running a campaign since November about cannabis edibles, advising people who use them to choose small doses, wait up to two hours to feel the effects, and avoid mixing ingested cannabis with alcohol.
Balneaves points out the number of emergency calls related to other controlled substances might put the edibles figure into context. According to a 2019 report from Global News, the WFPS received 5,894 calls for service in 2018 related to alcohol, and 1,166 calls related to methamphetamine.
Going forward, Balneaves said it's worth tracking whether the year-over-year increase in emergency calls related to cannabis edibles holds steady.
"I guess my question would be, is this a blip statistically following legalization, and will we see a trend in the future where it goes back to a baseline," she said.
"We see that in certain jurisdictions in the United States... We need to follow this over time, and if we continue to see this rising, then we need to better address our education campaigns."
Solomon Israel is a full-time reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press and for two years, the lead writer for Free Press cannabis news site, The Leaf News. He continues to provide coverage of the cannabis beat while covering business in the city and province.