Marijuana is somehow making millions violently sick

A recent Colorado study of ER visits is alarming medical professionals.

  • Millions of long-time marijuana users are developing intense stomach pain, nausea and bouts of vomiting.
  • The condition is called "cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome," or "CHS."
  • What makes it happen is unclear, but the only way to stop it is to cease consumption of cannabis.

It's no longer illegal to smoke marijuana in 10 U.S. states and its medical use is allowed in 33. In Colorado, it's been fully legal since 2014, with a variety of THC — the active agent in grass — products available for sale. A new study, however, looks to harsh the buzz: There's been a dramatic rise in emergency-room visits for cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome, or CHS.

It's a condition characterized by stomach pain, extreme nausea, and repeat vomiting. Researchers' concern is exacerbated by the assumption that if this many people are showing up at ERs, many more are likely to be dealing with it on their own. Part of the appeal of marijuana has always been how unlikely it is that you'll overdose on it. Doctors don't yet know exactly what's going on.

What’s causing CHS?

Image source: Inked Pixels / Shutterstock

Clinicians in Colorado are convinced that the syndrome is connected to marijiuana consumption, though they're not sure how. About 25.7 percent of the CHS ER cases — that's 2,567 patients — occurred after smoking weed, and 9.3 percent were from edible cannabis. The data tracks visits between January 2012 and January 2016.

Interestingly, patients who'd eaten grass were more likely to arrive at the ER with acute psychiatric symptoms, intoxication, and cardiovascular issues. Edible cannabis, in general, sent a disproportionately high number of high people to the hospital: While only 0.32 percent of Colorado cannabis sales are for edible varieties, it resulted in 10.7 percent of hospital visits.

CHS was first identified in 19 South Australian patients in 2004, chronic chronic users who'd been lighting up for decades. A second 2018 study of ER patients in New York City found CHS most likely to appear in patients who used pot at least 20 days each month for five or more years, and multiple times each day. Extrapolating from the local data, the study's authors concluded that it may — in these days of expanded legalization — affect somewhere from 2.13 to 3.38 million Americans annually.

In the South Australian study, doctors suggested a possible immediate cause for CHS: A hypothalamic-pituitary reaction to cannabis. They found that among long-time cannabis users, "One logical explanation for this might lie with marijuana's effect on the limbic system of the brain, particularly at the hippocampal-hypothalamic-pituitary level. A hypothalamic action is further supported by evidence that chronic cannabis use affects the secretion of pituitary hormones, suppressing growth hormone, follicle stimulating hormone, and luteinising hormone, with documented pubertal arrest."

What to do if symptoms arise

Image source: dreadek / Shutterstock

If you've consumed cannabis and begin experiencing severe stomach pains, nausea, or start vomiting, there is a home "cure" many victims have found at least temporarily helpful: A hot bath or shower can alleviate the symptoms. The relief lasts only until one leaves the water, though, and also tends to diminish in effectiveness over repeat episodes.

This fits the hypothalamic hypothesis, since, says the 2004 study, "Cannabis toxicity may disrupt the balanced equilibrium of satiety, thirst, digestive, and thermoregulatory systems of the hypothalamus and this disruption might settle with hot bathing or showering."

Even if the mechanism of CHS isn't yet clear, there's just one agreed-upon cure for CHS: If you start experiencing its symptoms, stop using marijuana altogether.

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Why Epicurean ideas suit the challenges of modern secular life

Sure, Epicureans focused on seeking pleasure – but they also did so much more.

Antonio Masiello/Getty Images
Culture & Religion

'The pursuit of Happiness' is a famous phrase in a famous document, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). But few know that its author was inspired by an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean. He probably found the phrase in John Locke, who, like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Adam Smith, had also been influenced by Epicurus.

Nowadays, educated English-speaking urbanites might call you an epicure if you complain to a waiter about over-salted soup, and stoical if you don't. In the popular mind, an epicure fine-tunes pleasure, consuming beautifully, while a stoic lives a life of virtue, pleasure sublimated for good. But this doesn't do justice to Epicurus, who came closest of all the ancient philosophers to understanding the challenges of modern secular life.

Epicureanism competed with Stoicism to dominate Greek and Roman culture. Born in 341 BCE, only six years after Plato's death, Epicurus came of age at a good time to achieve influence. He was 18 when Alexander the Great died at the tail end of classical Greece – identified through its collection of independent city-states – and the emergence of the dynastic rule that spread across the Persian Empire. Zeno, who founded Stoicism in Cyprus and later taught it in Athens, lived during the same period. Later, the Roman Stoic Seneca both critiqued Epicurus and quoted him favourably.

Today, these two great contesting philosophies of ancient times have been reduced to attitudes about comfort and pleasure – will you send back the soup or not? That very misunderstanding tells me that Epicurean ideas won, hands down, though bowdlerised, without the full logic of the philosophy. Epicureans were concerned with how people felt. The Stoics focused on a hierarchy of value. If the Stoics had won, stoical would now mean noble and an epicure would be trivial.

Epicureans did focus on seeking pleasure – but they did so much more. They talked as much about reducing pain – and even more about being rational. They were interested in intelligent living, an idea that has evolved in our day to mean knowledgeable consumption. But equating knowing what will make you happiest with knowing the best wine means Epicurus is misunderstood.

The rationality he wedded to democracy relied on science. We now know Epicurus mainly through a poem, De rerum natura, or 'On the Nature of Things', a 7,400 line exposition by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who lived c250 years after Epicurus. The poem was circulated only among a small number of people of letters until it was said to be rediscovered in the 15th century, when it radically challenged Christianity.

Its principles read as astonishingly modern, down to the physics. In six books, Lucretius states that everything is made of invisible particles, space and time are infinite, nature is an endless experiment, human society began as a battle to survive, there is no afterlife, religions are cruel delusions, and the universe has no clear purpose. The world is material – with a smidgen of free will. How should we live? Rationally, by dropping illusion. False ideas largely make us unhappy. If we minimise the pain they cause, we maximise our pleasure.

Secular moderns are so Epicurean that we might not hear this thunderclap. He didn't stress perfectionism or fine discriminations in pleasure – sending back the soup. He understood what the Buddhists call samsara, the suffering of endless craving. Pleasures are poisoned when we require that they do not end. So, for example, it is natural to enjoy sex, but sex will make you unhappy if you hope to possess your lover for all time.

Epicurus also seems uncannily modern in his attitude to parenting. Children are likely to bring at least as much pain as pleasure, he noted, so you might want to skip it. Modern couples who choose to be 'child-free' fit within the largely Epicurean culture we have today. Does it make sense to tell people to pursue their happiness and then expect them to take on decades of responsibility for other humans? Well, maybe, if you seek meaning. Our idea of meaning is something like the virtue embraced by the Stoics, who claimed it would bring you happiness.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans understood that some good things are better than others. Thus you necessarily run into choices, and the need to forgo one good to protect or gain another. When you make those choices wisely, you'll be happier. But the Stoics think you'll be acting in line with a grand plan by a just grand designer, and the Epicureans don't.

As secular moderns, we pursue short-term happiness and achieve deeper pleasure in work well done. We seek the esteem of peers. It all makes sense in the light of science, which has documented that happiness for most of us arises from social ties – not the perfect rose garden or a closet of haute couture. Epicurus would not only appreciate the science, but was a big fan of friendship.

The Stoics and Epicureans diverge when it comes to politics. Epicurus thought politics brought only frustration. The Stoics believed that you should engage in politics as virtuously as you can. Here in the US where I live, half the country refrains from voting in non-presidential years, which seems Epicurean at heart.

Yet Epicurus was a democrat. In a garden on the outskirts of Athens, he set up a school scandalously open to women and slaves – a practice that his contemporaries saw as proof of his depravity. When Jefferson advocated education for American slaves, he might have had Epicurus in mind.

I imagine Epicurus would see far more consumption than necessary in my own American life and too little self-discipline. Above all, he wanted us to take responsibility for our choices. Here he is in his Letter to Menoeceus:

For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls.

Do you see the 'pursuit of happiness' as a tough research project and kick yourself when you're glum? You're Epicurean. We think of the Stoics as tougher, but they provided the comfort of faith. Accept your fate, they said. Epicurus said: It's a mess. Be smarter than the rest of them. How modern can you get?Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.


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