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Can Marijuana Send You to the ER?

Research finds increase in emergency room visits linked to cannabis poisoning among older adults


spinner image collage of marijuana gummies, a marijuana leaf, a joint, and a poison symbol
Photo Collage: AARP (Source: Shutterstock(2); Getty Images(2))

Older marijuana users are ending up in emergency rooms at higher rates since legal cannabis products — and in particular, edible cannabis products, like gummies — have become more broadly available, according to new research out of Canada.

The findings, published May 20 in JAMA Internal Medicine, align with trends in the U.S., where edible cannabis is also behind an increasing proportion of cannabis poisonings in older adults. 

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According to the latest study, the rate of emergency room visits for adults 65 and older in Canada rose from a pre-legalization rate of 5.8 per 100,000 to 21.1 per 100,000 after edibles were available for retail in January 2020. In total, there were 2,322 ER visits across Canada from 2015 through 2022, according to the researchers.

Adverse effects of cannabis use can include dry mouth, impaired motor skills, panic, paranoia and decreased short-term memory, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Cannabis gaining popularity among older U.S. adults

About 12 percent of U.S. adults ages 50 to 80 used cannabis products in the past year — a share that has grown considerably in the last several years, according to 2023 research from the University of Michigan’s National Poll on Healthy Aging, supported by AARP. Cannabis use among U.S. adults 65 and older was at 0.4 percent in 2006 and 2007, before increasing to 2.9 percent in 2015 and 2016, according to research published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

What’s behind more ER visits?

While they cannot say for certain, the authors of the Canadian study say older adults “are at particularly high risk of adverse effects from cannabis due to age-related physiological changes, polypharmacy [taking multiple medications], drug interactions, and multimorbidity,” or having two or more chronic health conditions. They note that the users may also not be getting age-specific dosing instructions.

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In an accompanying editorial, geriatricians Lona Mody, M.D., a professor at the University of Michigan, and Sharon K. Inouye, M.D., a professor at Harvard Medical School, suggest older adults may not understand the potency of today’s cannabis products. “Current cannabis is much more potent than in the past. With edible cannabis products, it is difficult to know what is being ingested by patients because active ingredients and doses are not specified,” they write.

Mody and Inouye, who were not part of the research, also note that edibles can be difficult to distinguish from foods that don’t contain cannabis, raising the risk for accidental overconsumption. What's more, older adults using cannabis products may not be consulting their physicians to understand any potential side effects — particularly in combination with other medications they may be taking.

“This study provides a cautionary tale of legalization of substances without adequate research, education, and counseling of users regarding adverse effects and safe usage, particularly in older adults,” Mody and Inouye write. “In addition, instructing older adults to inform and seek advice from their physicians may improve both the effectiveness and safety of use. Likewise, physicians should directly ask their patients about nonmedical cannabis use.”

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