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Chicago hospitals brace for more weed-related visits. Poison Center already taking calls on more cases, including some involving small children

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 1/14/2020 By Lisa Schencker, Chicago Tribune
Workers pack gummies at Cresco Labs in Joliet on Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2019. © Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS Workers pack gummies at Cresco Labs in Joliet on Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2019.

A number of Chicago hospitals either are seeing or expect to see an uptick in emergency room visits related to cannabis, now that recreational marijuana is legal in Illinois.

The University of Illinois Hospital, on the city’s Near West Side, did not provide specific data Monday but said it has seen an increase since Jan. 1. Most patients have complained of mild-to-moderate symptoms, including feelings of restlessness, racing hearts and anxiety, said Dr. Trevonne Thompson, associate professor of emergency medicine and medical toxicology.

Some patients have reported more severe symptoms, including hallucinations and psychosis, he said.

“Many people believe it is not possible to overdose on cannabis, but that is incorrect — overconsumption of cannabis can lead to adverse effects,” Thompson said in a statement.

People may not realize that it takes time for edibles to kick in, so they ingest too many, he said.

Patients visiting the ER include those trying cannabis for the first time, or after a break of many years, Thompson said.

The Illinois Poison Center has fielded questions about 11 cases involving marijuana between Jan. 1 and Jan. 12, compared with calls about four cases during the same period last year, said spokesman Danny Chun. Three of the cases this year involved small children who accidentally ingested edibles, and the rest were related to adolescents or adults, he said.

Nine of the calls involved edibles, and two involved smoking. All of the patients have fully recovered, Chun said.

Other Chicago hospitals say they haven’t seen more patients coming in for cannabis-related illnesses, but some said they expect an increase as marijuana products become more widely available and the stigma surrounding them decreases.

“We’re getting ready for an uptick, but the sales have just started,” said Dr. Steven Aks, an emergency physician and chief of toxicology for Cook County Health. The system’s Stroger Hospital, on the city’s Near West Side, typically has seen about one cannabis-related visit a week, he said.

He expects an increase because much of the cannabis being sold is more potent than what people may have taken in the past.

Rush University Medical Center, on the city’s Near West Side, also expects to see more patients with cannabis-related complaints, said Rush director of medical toxicology Dr. Henry Swoboda. Heavy cannabis users can develop a condition known as cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome, which consists of repeated and severe bouts of vomiting.

Patients who arrive at the ER with that condition may be treated with anti-nausea medication, he said. Patients experiencing panic attacks or psychosis might be given sedatives.

“If you’re having symptoms you’re worried could be dangerous, or that are physical symptoms, I think it’s totally reasonable to get checked out by a physician in the ER,” Swoboda said.

People can also call the Illinois Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222 if they have questions.

Experts say it likely will take months of tracking to determine whether more patients are heading to Illinois emergency rooms after using marijuana.

ER visits have increased in at least one major hospital in Colorado, where recreational cannabis became available in 2014.

Cannabis-related visits to the UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital emergency department rose each year between 2012 and 2016, according to a study published last year in the peer-reviewed journal Annals of Internal Medicine.

In 2012, the hospital had fewer than 250 visits tied to inhaled marijuana, and by 2016 that number had jumped to more than 750, according to the study.

The most common reason patients went to the ER was gastrointestinal problems, including severe vomiting. The second most common reason was intoxication, followed by psychiatric symptoms.

The study found more ER visits were by those who inhaled cannabis, rather than ate it, but cardiovascular symptoms and severe psychiatric symptoms were more common in those who took edibles.

At least three deaths have been tied to marijuana use in Colorado, including a man who jumped from a balcony after consuming an edible, a woman killed by her husband after he ate an edible and a man who died by suicide at a ski resort after ingesting an edible, according to the study.

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