People who reported using cannabis within the last year had much greater odds of being admitted to hospital or visiting the emergency room than people who did not use the drug, according to a study published Monday in BMJ Open Respiratory Research, suggesting recreational weed might not be as harmless as many think amid an increasing push towards legalization.
Cannabis users—the vast majority of whom researchers said would have used the drug recreationally—had a “significantly greater” risk of being admitted to hospital or visiting the emergency room for any reason than people who did not use the drug, according to the peer reviewed analysis of health records from more than 15,000 Canadians.
Overall, cannabis users were 22% more likely to visit the ER or be hospitalized, the researchers found, even when factors like age, gender and other health issues were taken into account.
Acute trauma (15%) was the most common cause of ER visit or hospitalization among cannabis users, followed by respiratory problems (14%) and gastrointestinal issues (13%).
The results point to serious health risks associated with cannabis consumption and suggest rising recreational use around the world “is not benign” and should be curtailed.
What We Don’t Know
What was behind the study’s findings. As the study was observational, the researchers stress its findings cannot be used to say cannabis use caused the higher rates of hospitalizations and ER visits. The findings could be explained by factors researchers didn’t measure or account for in their analysis, they said. The researchers also said the small sample size of the study meant they could not produce a reliable estimate on the difference in risk for all-cause mortality among cannabis users, though the data available found no significant difference. Further research will be needed to confirm the findings and dig deeper into a possible link between all-cause mortality and respiratory illness, the researchers said.
Despite being banned under federal law, cannabis use is on the rise in the U.S. Nineteen states and Washington, D.C., have legalized recreational cannabis, with several other states, including Oklahoma, looking likely to join them this year. Polling suggests a strong majority of Americans support legalization, though efforts to do so federally have floundered, encouraging the growth of a nascent cannabis tourism industry in states that legalize the substance that’s worth an estimated $17 billion. Some 37 states have legalized cannabis for medical purposes and though there is evidence some cannabis compounds, such as CBD, might be useful in treating issues like chronic pain, a lot remains unknown and the science is far from settled. Many of the purported health benefits from cannabis-derived products are over-hyped or false, lacking solid evidence and extrapolated from clinical trials that differ significantly from how the drug would be used recreationally. The medical hype can obscure the fundamental fact that cannabis is a drug and that there is clear evidence its recreational use can cause harm, particularly among younger people. This includes an increased risk of serious psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia.