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Medical Advances

ER Visits for 'Marijuana Tourists'

ER Trends in Colorado Emphasize Marijuana Education

Colorado has legally allowed the sale of marijuana in retail dispensaries since 2014 and since then, the state has seen a 109 percent increase in weed-related emergency room visits by out-of-state visitors. Scientists who studied the trend, led by Northwestern Medicine emergency medicine physician Howard Kim, point to a lack of broad awareness a cause of the difference. 

Visitors to Colorado experiencing marijuana-related symptoms accounted for 163 of 10,000 emergency room visits in 2014, compared to 101 of 10,000 among Colorado residents. Before legalization, marijuana-related visits to the emergency room accounted for 78 of 10,000 among tourists and 70 of 10,000 among residents. The data was drawn from the emergency department of UCHealth’s University of Colorado Hospital in the metro Denver area, where Dr. Kim was a resident and started his research before coming to Northwestern Medicine.

The study suggests that out-of-state visitors, who are usually in the area for other reasons and decide to try marijuana, are unprepared for the adverse effects, particularly with regard to edibles. In most cases, they received supportive care and sent home after a few hours. 

Marijuana use can lead to adverse psychiatric, cardiovascular and gastrointestinal symptoms. People trying marijuana may be unprepared for the anxiety, hallucinations and altered mental state many users experience as well as the increased heart rate, high blood pressure or heart palpitations that can also be side effects. Some people may also feel abdominal pain or nausea.

Moreover, edible cannabis products like cookies and brownies are also accessible and of particular risk for visitors. Edibles can have a delayed effect, and people who are unaware of this or the strength of their particular edible may eat multiple when they don’t immediately feel anything. When the effects do register, they may much stronger and, depending on the quantity and potency, can lead to overdose. 

All of which underscores the importance of educating the public on safe and appropriate marijuana use. Furthermore, according to Dr. Kim and his team, the disparity between visitors and residents points to the effectiveness of the Good to Know campaign from the Colorado Department of Public Health and emphasizes the need for pre-emptive public health education in states that have legalized or are considering legalizing recreational marijuana.
Howard S. Kim, MD
Howard S. Kim, MD
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Assistant Professor, Feinberg School of Medicine
  • Primary Specialty Emergency Medicine
  • Secondary Specialty Convenient/Urgent Care
Does Not Schedule or Accept New Patients
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