Marijuana - Know the Risks
A message from Dr. Laura Buthod, Medical Advisor for the McHenry County Department of Health
January 1st is typically a day of celebration and hope for all things good in the new year. In the state of Illinois, many residents are heralding the day as the first time to access marijuana legally for social use. In the state public health community, it is a day of caution and concern.
Earlier in December, we learned in a new report from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) that teen vaping of marijuana is rising at alarming rates. The number of high school seniors reporting vaping marijuana in the past month increased nearly 50% from 2018. Currently, 14% of seniors are current marijuana vapers and 25.5% report vaping nicotine in the past month. Overall, one in three high school seniors reported use of marijuana at some time in 2019.
This same report from NIDA did have some good news about teen habits. Drinking, cigarette smoking and use of other illegal drugs declined in 2019.
With the increased popularity of vaping, 2019 has seen a public health crisis of over 2,500 people being hospitalized with vaping lung illnesses, and more than 50 deaths related to vaping. While the cause of these injuries is still under investigation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most of these patients had vaped THC, the mind-altering component of marijuana. Also of concern, is vitamin E acetate, an oil, that has been found in the lungs of patients and many vaping devices associated with injury. There are many different substances and product sources that are still being investigated. Therefore, the CDC recommends the best way for people to ensure that they are not at risk of developing a lung problem is to refrain from the use of all vaping products, especially THC-containing e-cigarette or vaping products from informal sources like friends, family, or in-person or online sellers.
Besides the vaping concerns of direct lung injury, what other ways can marijuana cause concern for the people of Illinois? For infrequent users or novices of marijuana, a lack of understanding of the labeling of cannabis products at dispensaries can be harmful. All joints or edibles are not created equal. According to the University of Mississippi Marijuana Potency Monitoring program, the potency of marijuana, measured by increasing percentages of THC in products, have increased dramatically since the 1970s, with concentrations ranging from 6.7-55.7% in 2017.
In typical concentrations, THC activates certain areas of the brain which causes altered senses, mood changes, slowed reaction times, difficulty with thinking and problem-solving, and impaired memory and learning.
According to toxicologists, the impairing effects of marijuana are usually experienced within the first one to four hours after using the drug. But because of the different strains and strengths of marijuana, and the different ways of ingesting it, the length of impairment is unpredictable and may last 8 hours or longer. So unlike alcohol, it's hard to know how much time to let pass before getting behind the wheel of a car.
Recent studies suggest you are at least twice as likely to get in a car accident after marijuana use. New driving laws effective January 1st in Illinois state that if a police officer is suspicious a driver is impaired by marijuana, a driver must submit to a field sobriety test and/or validated roadside chemical tests. If found to be impaired, the driver may lose his driving privileges.
New marijuana users also need to understand that exposure to higher THC levels means greater risk of a harmful reaction. While there are no reports of teens or adults dying from marijuana alone, some people who use marijuana can feel very uncomfortable side effects such as anxiety and paranoia, and in rare cases, an extreme psychotic reaction (which can include delusions and hallucinations) that can lead them to seek emergency room treatment. Emergency room responders have seen an increasing number of cases involving marijuana edibles. Because it takes longer for the body to feel marijuana’s effects when eaten rather than smoked, users consume more edible products, trying to get high faster or thinking they haven't taken enough.
It is also important to remember that marijuana affects children differently than adults. Developing brains, like those in babies, children, and teens are especially susceptible to the hurtful effects of marijuana. Although scientists are still learning about the long-term effects of marijuana use on the brain, studies show that marijuana use by mothers during pregnancy is linked to problems with attention, memory, problem-solving skills, and behavior problems in their children.
Since marijuana has become legal in some states, young children have accidentally eaten marijuana products that looked like candy and treats, which made them sick enough to need emergency medical care.
If you are thinking of using marijuana products, keep them in childproof containers and out of the reach of children. For additional questions, you can contact your health care provider, or the McHenry County Department of Health at 815-334-4500. In an emergency, call the Poison Control hotline at 1-800-222-1222, or 911.