Stoned seniors — and we're not talking high-school kids — are visiting emergency rooms for cannabis-related issues in unprecedented numbers, according to a new study by UC San Diego researchers.
According to the study conducted by the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, just 366 Californians over the age of 65 visited ERs in 2005 for cannabis-related concerns. By 2019, that figure had skyrocketed nearly 3200%, when 12,167 seniors made trips to emergency rooms for that reason.
While a law was passed by the state way back in '96 approving the use of medical marijuana, a second law was passed in 2003 clarifying the legislation prior to its use becoming more widespread. Recreational use of marijuana was approved by state voters in 2016. It's worth noting that the study shows that while ER visits spiked between 2013-17, they plateaued in 2017, the year weed became legally available for recreational use, so legalization does not appear to be connected to an increase in ER visits by seniors for cannabis-related issues.
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“Many patients assume they aren’t going to have adverse side-effects from cannabis because they often don’t view it as seriously as they would a prescription drug,” said Dr. Benjamin Han, a geriatrician who authored the study. “I do see a lot of older adults who are overly confident, saying they know how to handle it — yet as they have gotten older, their bodies are more sensitive, and the concentrations are very different from what they may have tried when they were younger.”
Researchers cited "a growing number of older adults ... experimenting with cannabis to help alleviate chronic symptoms" as responsible, in part, for the wave of ER visitors. Among other reasons, geriatricians will likely be concerned about study's findings due to the fact that older patients "are at a higher risk for adverse health effects associated with psychoactive substances," according to a news release issued by UC San Diego this week.
Although some older users are experimenting with the drug as a component of palliative care, others are imbibing recreationally, of course. Both groups — who, researchers believe, are under the impression that their risk of regular use is decreasing — are using marijuana in increasing numbers since 2005; both have contributed to the spike in trips to the hospital, researchers believe.
"Cannabis can slow reaction time and impair attention," the news release states, "which may lead to injuries and falls; increase the risk for psychosis, delirium and paranoia; exacerbate cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases and interact with other prescription medications."
The study's authors would like to see medical professionals normalize discussions with older patients regarding cannabis use, and, when doing so, taking care not to group together questions regarding its consumption with inquiries about illegal drug use. The reason: Patients may not answer truthfully.
“Instead, asking a question like, ‘Have you used cannabis — also known as marijuana — for any reason in the last 12 months?’ would encourage older adults to answer more frankly,” said study co-author Dr. Alison Moore. “Providers can then ask how frequently cannabis is used, for what purpose — such as medically for pain, sleep or anxiety or recreationally to relax — in what form (smoked, eaten, applied topically) and if they know how much THC and CBD it contains. Once the provider has this type of information, they can then educate the patient about potential risks of use.”