Legalization of marijuana brings greater problems

A lot of people think you can’t overdose on marijuana. But that statement defies logic. Of course, you can overdose on marijuana, as with any drug or herb.

Just ask all the overworked ER nurses who deal with patients suffering mental health breakdowns for the first time in their lives after using marijuana. Or the patients who have heart palpitations or other serious heart problems for the first time after using the drug.  The fact is, marijuana increases heart rate and blood pressure. So it’s quite possible to overdose. And it happens all the time.

In a recent analysis, U.S. researchers examined emergency room visits and hospitalizations (inpatient admissions to the hospital) for any type of substance abuse, including marijuana.

Between 2007 and 2011, there were 10,532,658 emergency room visits in the U.S. due to any type of substance abuse. And during those four years, marijuana-related ER visits increased by a whopping 68 percent. Plus, marijuana-related inpatient admissions to the hospital increased by 13.3 percent.

Of course, the cost of dealing with all these new patients went up too. In fact, the average costs of such marijuana-related hospitalizations increased by 39 percent.

By comparison, hospitalizations for alcohol abuse rose by just 8.6 percent. And the cost for treating these patients rose by 29 percent.

So–marijuana increases the burdens on our healthcare system. It clearly stood out in terms of the number of emergency room visits, hospital admissions, and healthcare costs.

It didn’t seem to make a difference whether patients used marijuana medicinally or recreationally. Either way, more patients who used the drug still landed in the ER and were admitted to the hospital.

And here’s another concern…

Today, in states with legalized medical marijuana, we now see a large variety of different forms of marijuana, with different toxicities. And some forms are far more potent than others.

By contrast, we see far fewer different varieties in states where marijuana is not legal.

Plus, the legalized medicinal marijuana is four times more potent, on average, than what is typically available in states where it remains illegal.

That’s an astounding statistic.

No wonder states like Colorado see many, many more ER visits relating to marijuana.

Ironically, as states legalize the drug, we see far more toxicity than in states that haven’t legalized it. It’s far easier to overdose. ER doctors and nurses must deal with many more cases of toxicity. And it carries a higher cost.

Overall, marijuana intoxication and overdosing is a much bigger problem in states where it is legal.

But even a small amount of marijuana can incur a lot of damage, as researchers showed in a study published last April in the Journal of Neuroscience. Researchers linked small amounts of marijuana use to brain abnormalities. The study also found a “dose-response” effect. So the more you smoke, the more damage it caused.

In another study, which I told you about last year, young adults who used marijuana only recreationally showed significant abnormalities in key brain regions that are critical for influencing emotions and motivation.

This was a collaborative study between Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School and Northwestern Medical Center in Chicago. And it was the first study to demonstrate major brain changes caused by casual marijuana use.

Specifically, the researchers examined the amygdala and the nucleus accumbens of the brain. These key regions of the brain are associated with addiction. Plus, they influence emotions and motivation.

The researchers measured the nucleus accumbens in three different ways by neuroimaging analysis to obtain a detailed and consistent picture of the problem. They looked at the brains of young adults ages 18 to 25 from colleges in the Boston area. There were 20 who smoked cannabis and 20 who did not.

The researchers found marijuana use led to abnormalities in the shape, size and density of cerebral tissue in key regions of the brain. In fact, in marijuana users, both the amygdala and the nucleus accumbens showed abnormalities in at least two of three measures of shape, size and/or density of brain cells.

And again, researchers noticed a link between the extent of the damage and the number of joints smoked. So the more joints smoked, the greater the damage to the cerebral tissue.

Researchers found the students were not dependent on marijuana. Yet their brains showed abnormalities to even low-level exposure.

So the drug can be very misleading to a casual user. Perhaps they use it once or twice a week. They don’t feel addicted to it. So they don’t think it’s a problem, as long as they get along with school or work. But this study clearly shows that even occasional use harms the developing brain.

Fortunately, the latest data suggests some slight declines in use among high school students.

But, as I said yesterday, we are just beginning to scratch the surface in terms of marijuana research. When it was illegal in all 50 states, it was very difficult to study its effects on humans. We only had animal studies to rely on. So it was a bit of a guessing game.

But even those older animal studies showed similar results to the Boston findings. So we should have heeded the warning…

In fact, when researchers gave rats tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in marijuana, their brains “rewired” and formed different connections. In animals, these new connections indicate that the brain is adapting to an abnormal level of reward and stimulation.

Drugs can cause the brain to release more neurotransmitters than what normally occurs with natural rewards–such as food, social interaction, and sex. Then, rewards associated with drugs can overwhelm interest in everything else.

Today the THC content of marijuana can range from 5 to 9 percent, which is much higher than the 1 to 3 percent typically found in the 1960s or 1970s.

Of course, many people still claim marijuana use is “harmless.” Or that “nobody ever died from smoking marijuana.”

The actual data shows differently.

Even casual use damages the brain. Plus, since legalization in many states, we now see many more emergency room visits, hospitalizations, and costs to our burdened healthcare system. Ultimately, the taxpayers will pay the price with more taxes, higher health care costs, and skyrocketing insurance premiums.

I haven’t even touched on the dramatic increase in motor vehicle fatalities associated with marijuana use. Nor the serious lung cancer, mental health, and heart health risks.

Still think it’s harmless?

You decide.


  1. “Cannabis–‐Related ED Visits Rise in States With Legalized Use,” Academy of Addiction Psychiatry (AAAP), 25th Annual Meeting, ( December 2014
  1. “Cannabis Use Is Quantitatively Associated with Nucleus Accumbens and Amygdala Abnormalities in Young Adult Recreational Users,” Journal of Neuroscience, 16 April 2014, 34(16): 5529-5538