Cannabis-related ER visits up 44% in New York amid COVID.
What's behind the rise
May. 13, 2023
From USA Today
Zachary Cohn’s cannabis addiction took over his life as he squandered an otherwise privileged upbringing in a small Hudson Valley, New York, college town.
He hit bottom as a Syracuse University graduate living back home with family in New Paltz, New York, more than a decade ago. He was stealing cash from his parents to buy marijuana and getting high every day to numb his depression and anxiety, while the drug’s effects sapped his ambition to become a filmmaker.
“I feel like cannabis robbed me of that life,” Cohn, now 36, recalled recently. “Because I really had no other passions or interests or desire to do anything else than get high.”
The debilitating addiction only broke for Cohn after his family held an intervention, forcing him into inpatient treatment. He has since forged a new life as a recovery coach at Mountainside Treatment Center in Manhattan.
But that shot at redemption, Cohn said, may have never come in today’s post-marijuana legalization New York, as concerns mount about high-potency marijuana sold legally to adults and on the black market to all ages.
The state legalized recreational marijuana in 2021, making possession of small amounts of pot legal immediately and starting the clock on a recreational industry rollout that is now well underway. Several recreational dispensaries have opened across the state, including in Ithaca, Schenectady and New York City.
Some New Yorkers welcomed legalized cannabis, saying the dismantling of penalties around the drug will help communities of color who have been adversely impacted by unnecessarily harsh marijuana sentences.
But striking new details about recent spikes in cannabis-related emergency room visits in New York illustrated why experts are concerned about cannabis use as a rising health care threat, according to state data obtained by USA TODAY Network.
Among the findings:
Cannabis-related ER visits leaped about 44% from 2019 to 2021, reaching nearly 84,000 visits statewide in 2021 and contributing to historic pandemic-era strains on hospitals.
The biggest spikes hit the Mid-Hudson region, which jumped 147% to 5,244 visits in 2021. New York City leaped 52% to about 43,000 visits, and Central New York spiked 82% to 7,688 visits. The Finger Lakes had about 3,100 visits in both 2019 and 2021.
At the same time, marijuana use nationally among young adults ages 19 to 30 spiked 14% from 2011 to 2021, reaching historic peaks as more states legalized the drug. A total of 43% in this group reported using in the prior year in 2021.
For Cohn, the cannabis use trends are particularly troubling. Marijuana circulating 15 years ago was far less potent than today, he said, and it still proved addictive and powerful enough to derail his professional goals and scar relationships with family and friends.
“Cannabis created such a dark cloud on my existence,” Cohn said, “and it would have been exponentially worse if it had happened today.”
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How many cannabis-related ER visits in NY?
About three in 10 marijuana users develop some form of addiction, medically known as cannabis use disorder, state and federal research show.
In other words, cannabis use is currently causing problems in the work and lives of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, with an estimated 1.6 million adults overall using the drug statewide.
But recent reports of growing numbers of teenagers rushed to New York emergency rooms after using marijuana underscored the drug’s ever-evolving health risks.
Tracking marijuana risks in real time, however, is difficult because state data relies on hospital reports on the presence of cannabis-related diagnosis codes during visits. As a result, cannabis use may not be the primary reason for the ER visit.
Addressing rising ER visits linked to cannabis, state health officials issued a statement suggesting black-market marijuana products in part fueled the problem. They noted Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration is cracking down on unlicensed shops selling the drug and promoting legal sellers.
“As cannabis becomes a more widely available, legal recreational product, New Yorkers are urged to take advantage of education tools for safe consumption offered by the state,” health officials added.
But some other states that previously legalized adult-use marijuana have struggled with legal-sale and black-market health risks.
Colorado, for example, launched outreach to better educate marijuana tourists ending up in ERs. And California has seen a massive spike in cannabis-related ER visits among ages 65 and older – jumping from 366 visits in 2005 to 12,167 in 2019 – as they underestimated potency increases, a University of California San Diego School of Medicine study shows.
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How NY treats cannabis addiction
In New York, mental health providers and addiction specialists are also bracing for the impact of increases in cannabis-related treatment needs on a health system in crisis.
New York currently ranks 10th-worst nationally for mental health emergency room wait times, and parents often wait weeks or months to find inpatient treatment beds for children.
Hochul’s plan to add 1,000 inpatient mental health beds statewide and expand services in schools is expected to improve access to care. But some advocates and providers say more beds and funding is needed after decades of underinvestment.
At the same time, a growing post-pandemic surge in mental health needs and easy access to illicit cannabis deepens threats to young New Yorkers.
“Our biggest concern and what we are seeing in schools is that because of the discreet nature of THC (marijuana) vapes, they are everywhere,” said Katie DiSalvo, a prevention counselor at Webster Central Schools near Rochester.
“It's not secretive anymore, it's almost a rite of passage,” she added, noting legalization has more parents and teens viewing cannabis as "just weed" compared to "harder drugs" like cocaine and heroin.
But DiSalvo, who is also clinical supervisor at treatment provider Delphi Rise, described growing waitlists for cannabis-related services in the community, reflecting the true risks posed by the drug.
At the same time, DiSalvo has seen some students collapse or “green out” at school due to adverse reactions to marijuana, as counselors struggle to keep up with new risks from cutting-edge cannabis products sold online.
What cannabis disorder treatment looks like in NY
Some New Yorkers rushed to ERs for cannabis use suffer a form of temporary psychosis – effectively not knowing what is real amid hallucinations and paranoia, said Jana Wu, director of cultural integration at Mountainside.
The psychosis risk increases the younger marijuana use begins and the more frequent the drug is used, she added, noting there is no medication-assisted treatment for cannabis misuse but rather a reliance on behavioral group therapy.
Because marijuana is so widely accepted in certain pockets, people benefit from seeing others struggling with the drug, noted Wu.
The group approach to marijuana, she added, amounts to saying: “I know some people can use it fine, but for me it’s creating a lot of problems.”
Overall, about 15% of people in treatment at Mountainside’s Chappaqua location have a primary diagnosis of cannabis use disorder, Wu said, and those who stop using the drug often become agitated and anxious.
“The withdrawal is almost like insidious,” Wu said, noting mood swings are also common among long-time cannabis users who quit.
For further details about addiction treatment services in New York, visit the state Office of Addiction Services and Supports website, at oasas.ny.gov. You can also call its 24/7 HOPEline at 1-877-8-HOPENY or Text HOPENY (467369).
Source: USA Today, May 13, 2023: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/health/2023/05/13/marijuana-emergency-room-visits-new-york/70205633007/?gnt-cfr=1