As we continue this series about marijuana, national data regarding emergency room visits and treatment admissions linked to use of marijuana are helpful in exploring the risks.
The amount of THC in marijuana samples confiscated by police has been increasing steadily over the past few decades. In 2012, THC concentrations in marijuana averaged nearly 15 percent, compared to around 4 percent in the 1980s. For a new user, this may mean exposure to higher concentrations of THC, with a greater chance of an adverse or unpredictable reaction. Increases in potency may account for the rise in emergency department visits involving marijuana use. For experienced users, it may mean a greater risk for addiction if they are exposing themselves to high doses on a regular basis. However, the full range of consequences associated with marijuana's higher potency is not well understood.
While overdoses of cannabis are not themselves acutely life-threatening to healthy individuals, high doses of sativa or other THC-rich strains can induce temporary symptoms of paranoia or panic in some people, with accompanying rise in blood pressure and heart rate. Very high doses of any strain can also cause temporary loss of consciousness(“greening out”). Clearly, either of these effects could have serious consequences based on other factors, such as a pre-existing heart condition or simply falling and hitting your head.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's Drug Early Warning Network (Dawn), marijuana-related Emergency Room visits totaled 455,268 in 2011. The average patient age for marijuana-related visits was 30 years. 58 percent of marijuana-related visits involved patients aged 12 to 29, with 12 percent in the 12 to 17 age group. 66 percent were males, and 31 percent of visits in involved combining marijuana with other drugs.
SAMHSA's Treatment Episode Data Set (TEDS) is a national data system of annual admissions to substance abuse treatment facilities, and can be used to identify differences between treatment admissions involving persons who started using marijuana at age 17 or younger and those that initiated as adults. TEDS involves actual counts rather than estimates.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), estimates from research suggest that about 9 percent of users become addicted to marijuana; this number increases among those who start young (to about 17 percent, or 1 in 6) and among daily users (to 25-50 percent).
TEDS data shows that in 2010 there were 687,531 substance abuse treatment admissions aged 18 to 30. Of these, 340,212 reported marijuana abuse at treatment intake. The majority of marijuana admissions reported early initiation. 86.8 percent started using marijuana at age 17 or younger and the remaining 13.2 percent reported adult initiation (started using marijuana at age 18 or older). 12.1 percent began using at age 11 or younger. These proportions remained relatively constant between 2000 and 2010. Among adult initiates, 95.9 percent reported initiating marijuana use between the ages of 18 and 24.
Next we'll look at some recent research regarding the potential for sustained, and possibly permanent, cognitive problems because of early age at initiation and long periods of use.
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Director of Ulster Prevention Council