- The Washington Times - Monday, April 18, 2016

Hospitals and treatment centers in Colorado have seen an increase in marijuana use among patients since recreational pot became legal in January 2014, while weed-related arrests have predictably plummeted significantly, a report reveals.

While the author of an 147-page study released by the Colorado Department of Public Safety on Monday cautions that it’s too soon to measure perfectly the impact of the state’s first-in-the-nation recreational marijuana laws, statistics suggest that facilities have seen a surge with respect to patients who were hospitalized after consuming cannabis.

From 2001 to 2009, around 809 of each 100,000 hospitalizations recorded within Colorado involved patients who admitted to marijuana use, according to the report. For the period from 2014 to June 2015, the statistic surged to 2,413 hospitalizations per 100,000.

Phone calls made to poison control centers involving marijuana exposure increased as well, from 44 in 2006 to 227 in 2015, the report said.

With regard to treatment centers, The Denver Post noted that more than one-third of patients at Colorado facilities reported near daily use of marijuana in 2014, up from less than a quarter in 2007.

The number of people seeking treatment for pot has dropped, however, likely because fewer individuals end up being court-ordered to seek treatment because marijuana-related convictions dropped significantly after recreational weed became legal.

Marijuana arrests across Colorado decreased by 46 percent from 2012 to 2014, according to the report, and made up 3 percent of the total number of arrests in 2014, down from 6 percent two years earlier, before weed was legalized.

Nevertheless, Jack Reed of the Public Safety Department’s office of research and statistics wrote that further research is required before officials can make any real determinations with regard to marijuana trends since legalization.

“It is too early to draw any conclusions about the potential effects of marijuana legalization or commercialization on public safety, public health or youth outcomes,” he said, “and this may always be difficult due to the lack of historical data.”

In agreement is Mason Tvert, a marijuana legalization supporter and director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project in Colorado.

Speaking to The Washington Times on Monday, he said the report should be interpreted with caution and noted that its findings doesn’t necessarily mean more people are being hospitalized as a result of marijuana consumption — but rather that the number of incidents being reported is on the rise.

“You’re going to have people more open to mentioning that they’ve used marijuana,” he said. “But there’s no actual evidence to demonstrate that marijuana is causing the person to go to the hospital in all of these cases.”

Indeed, the Department of Public Safety acknowledges that the hospital visits described in the report aren’t guaranteed to be marijuana-motivated but are simply incidents in which “it is a possibility.”

“I think it’s pretty safe to say people are going to be more inclined to mention it than when it was illegal,” Mr. Tvert told The Times.

Laws that legalize or largely decriminalize recreational marijuana for adults have passed in Washington state, the District of Columbia, Oregon and Alaska in the years since Colorado approved Amendment 64 and in turn began allowing individuals older than 21 to buy marijuana and cannabis-infused products from state-sanctioned retailers.

In February, the St. Charles Health System told a Central Oregon NBC affiliate that marijuana-related emergency room visits in the region have increased by 1,967 percent since 2010, with the biggest spike right before recreational pot became legal there in October.

Doctors at the time told KTVZ that cannabis-infused edibles are routinely to blame for those hospitalizations, and Paul Armentano, deputy director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), told The Times that cannabis products that can be covertly consumed, such as edibles, need to be adequately labeled to keep emergency room visits from increasing further.

“Despite the change in state law, cannabis use is still forbidden in public places and also may not be legally consumed in private, nonresident establishments, such as in hotels or bars. As a result, many consumers, and out-of-state visitors in particular, are more likely to purchase formulations of cannabis that they can consume clandestinely, such as edible products or concentrates,” he said.

These forms of marijuana consumption are likelier to cause health complications, he said.

“Ultimately, the imposition of sensible regulations on the cannabis industry, coupled with better public safety information and greater consumer/seller responsibility and accountability, are the best strategies to address cannabis-specific health concerns and to prevent future rises in hospital admissions due to cannabis ingestion from taking place,” Mr. Armentano told The Times.

• Andrew Blake can be reached at ablake@washingtontimes.com.

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