Cannabis 'overdoses' in emergency rooms: The big picture

Cannabis-related emergency room visits appear to be on the rise, but so have ER visits for poisonings by other drugs. (Adrian Wyld é The Canadian Press)

Cannabis-related emergency room visits appear to be on the rise, but so have ER visits for poisonings by other drugs. (Adrian Wyld é The Canadian Press)

Earlier this week, CBC News informed Canadians of an alarming new trend with the headline, "Spike in cannabis overdoses blamed on potent edibles, poor public education."

"(As) the Oct. 17 date for legalization of recreational pot looms, CBC News has learned that cannabis-related emergency room visits have spiked," said the article by Katie Nicholson. According to experts quoted in the story, over-consumption of marijuana edibles likely played a part in that increase.

The story was based on data provided by the Canadian Institute for Health Information, which showed emergency department visits due to "poisoning from cannabis and derivatives" were up from 887 cases in 2013-2014 to 2,266 cases in 2017-2018. (The numbers don't capture all emergency rooms in Canada, but do include all emergency rooms in Ontario and Alberta.)

The Leaf News has previously written about how "overdose" might not be the most appropriate term to use for adverse reactions to cannabis. We've also written about the fact that potent cannabis edibles definitely pose a distinct public health challenge — in the last year, we've seen stories about how irresponsible use of edibles has had negative consequences for everyone from on-duty police officers to a four-year-old girl.

Today, we want to add a bit of context CBC's story, using some more data from the Canadian Institute for Health Information.

The Leaf News asked CIHI to provide us with data for visits to the same emergency rooms, but for reasons related to some other common drugs: Alcohol, tobacco/nicotine, cocaine, psychostimulants like methamphetamine and ecstasy, and opioids, opium, heroin and methadone.

From 2013-2014, when CIHI's data show 887 emergency room visits for cannabis poisonings, there were 13,111 visits to the same emergency rooms for poisonings from those other drugs. By 2017-2018, when cannabis-related ER trips "spiked" to 2,266, emergency room visits related to those other drugs had increased to 25,089.

According to this data, emergency room visits for cannabis poisonings remain a small fraction of the total number of drug-related ER visits. Plus, it looks like ER visits for drug poisonings in general have been on the rise from 2013 to 2018, which suggests some other factor may be at work here.

Our point here isn't to argue that cannabis edibles are risk-free, because they aren't. For novice users in particular, a large dose of cannabis in edible form can be a truly unpleasant experience. The overall thesis of the CBC News report — that the public needs better education about the potential impact of cannabis edibles — is sound.

But statistics need context, and this context suggests emergency room visits from cannabis poisonings remain relatively uncommon in the grand scheme of things.

Remember, the federal government is taking an extra year to regulate cannabis edibles, which will result in a recommended serving size with a precise dose of THC.

Will that stop Canadians from taking too much and ending up in hospital? No way.

Will the media be paying more attention to cannabis-related hospitalizations? You better believe it.

Update: Corrects errant punctuation mark.

New on The Leaf

  • Weed from beyond the sea: Will Canadian individuals be legally permitted to import cannabis? Dear Herb knows.
  • Stoners no more: A major U.S. cannabis retailer has launched a campaign to battle the "stoner" stereotype.
  • Pot stock drama: Shares of Canadian cannabis company Cronos Group cratered after a short seller said the company's management is deceiving investors.

Elsewhere on the Weed Wide Web

  • Think of the seniors: Everyone's worried about what legalization means for Canadian kids, but Toronto Star columnist Emma Teitel argues it's older Canadians who are most at risk of adverse experiences when they return to cannabis after a long absence.
  • Green detox: CTV News profiles High Hopes, a B.C. clinic where clients are provided with free cannabis to help them escape other substance abuse disorders.
  • Meanwhile, south of the border: Donald Trump's White House "has secretly amassed a committee of federal agencies" to make a renewed push against marijuana legalization, BuzzFeed News reveals.


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