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Are Cannabis Users 22% More Likely to Need Emergency Care?

August 17, 2022 08:30 am ET
Are Cannabis Users 22% More Likely to Need Emergency Care?

Cannabis’ impact on health is a subject area rife with misunderstanding and controversy. Recently, a study found that cannabis users are more likely to end up needing emergency care, claiming that “cannabis use is not as benign and safe as some might think.” Let’s see what this study is all about—and if its findings are reliable.

Cannabis Consumers at the Hospital 

Researchers wanted to evaluate the potential association between cannabis use and respiratory-related emergency room visits and hospitalizations. Data that’s been published on the subject have been contradictory. For example, the researchers state that cannabis has been linked with the development of chronic bronchitis symptoms (a con) but do not touch on the fact that cannabis has been found to act as a bronchodilator (a pro).

The population-based cohort study used data from the Ontario portion of the 2009-2010 and 2011-2012 Canada Community Health Survey (CCHS). The population included residents of Ontario, Canada, between the ages of 12 and 65. The researchers explained that the exposed group was individuals who reported cannabis use in the last 12 months, and the control group was individuals who reported never having used cannabis or having used it more than 12 months ago.

The findings suggest that cannabis consumers are at greater risk of being admitted to the hospital or needing emergency care compared to non-consumers. Specifically, they found cannabis consumers to be 22% more likely to end up in the hospital or ER. The team reported that acute trauma, respiratory problems, and gastrointestinal issues appeared to be the most common reasons behind their hospitalization.

The Study Appears to Have a Few Flaws

While the findings of the study seem alarming, there are some glaring flaws that have led us to question the accuracy of the results.

Missing and Vague Information

This study was observational in the sense that the researchers did not directly interact with participants and merely conducted reviews of health records and surveys. When someone states that cannabis consumers are significantly more likely to need emergency care and hospitalization, there is an implication that cannabis is the cause for such. However, the researchers specifically state that their research can’t be used to say that cannabis is the cause behind higher rates of hospitalization and emergency ward admissions.

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In the discussion portion of the research, the researchers state, “Our primary outcome, odds of respiratory-related ER visits or hospitalizations, was not significantly greater among cannabis users than the control group…” This suggests that, despite their claims of greater hospitalization risks and cannabis being more harmful than thought to be, the researchers know that more research will be needed in order to truly establish adverse links between cannabis and respiratory illness, emergency care, etc.

Focused on the Negative

While the researchers are correct about the fact that research on cannabis is largely controversial, their explanation of this only highlighted the negative aspects. Not only does the research itself need to be unbiased, but so does the included background information on the subject.

The researchers did not even expose the fact that pinene, a terpene in cannabis, can improve airflow into the lungs, essentially helping asthmatics and others with lung-based conditions, which is relevant to the topic at hand. Choosing to include only the negative relevant information about cannabis does not accurately portray its complex, controversial relationship to the respiratory system.

Localized, Small Sample Size

The researchers had access to the health reports and surveys for Canada, yet only those in Ontario were used—which accounts for only <2% of the world’s 158 million cannabis consumers. The fact that the research was limited to a small sample of participants from one area does not accurately reflect what the situation may be if more of the world’s cannabis consumers were to be included in such research.

The study’s lead author stated, “Our research demonstrates that cannabis use in the general population is associated with heightened risk of clinically serious negative outcomes, specifically, needing to present to the ED or be admitted to hospital.” However, the sample size is too small to make a 22% increased risk in hospitalization sound like such a significant finding. For a population of around 158 million people, the sample size should have been at least 158,000.

A Word to Researchers Who Study Cannabis

There are two sides to the cannabis controversy: those who over-hype the medicinal benefits and those who over-exaggerate the risks of cannabis consumption. The truth about cannabis lies somewhere in between both. Cannabis does have an extraordinary ability to help with various conditions and illnesses, but improper use can lead to adverse, unwanted effects. It’s irresponsible as a researcher to both suggest that cannabis is a cure-all or that cannabis is as bad as cocaine.

For the sake of reliable public knowledge, researchers need to take greater care to remain objective and avoid strong statements. Pros and cons of any cannabis-related topic should be made easily accessible in relation to a study’s findings. Researchers should never focus purely on the negative, nor purely on the positive; we need realism in cannabis research.

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