It seems like there has been a recent flare-up of media coverage of a rare medical condition called ‘cannabinoid hyperemesis.’ Symptoms of cannabinoid hyperemesis include cyclic episodes of nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain after long-term marijuana use. A number of media outlets have posted articles about it in the last couple of weeks. The articles all have a central underlying theme – a cannabinoid hyperemesis epidemic is upon us in states that have recently legalized marijuana.
The media articles have been using a newly coined term, ‘scromiting’ to really ramp up the shock factor. Cannabinoid hyperemesis is a very serious issue for those that suffer from it, and I do not want to downplay that fact at all. The condition being serious is a big reason why I get upset every time I see an article overstating how common it is. Those articles do a disservice to the ongoing constructive conversation that needs to happen regarding the condition in order to help people that are suffering from it.
Rather than informing people about the condition in a responsible way, and quickly explaining what people can do if they think they are suffering from the condition (taking hot baths, refraining from cannabis consumption), the articles instead act like the sky is falling and try to scare everyone into thinking there is an epidemic going on in legal states. The articles don’t come straight out and say it, but they strongly suggest that people should avoid consuming marijuana because of the risk of developing cannabinoid hyperemesis. Previous ‘boogeyman’ articles about the topic are often used by cannabis opponents to try to justify reversing cannabis reform or halting current reform efforts.
One recent article makes the alarming claim that, “Scromiting,’ doctors say, is becoming an all-too-familiar site at emergency rooms, with patients ‘screaming and vomiting’ as they turn up for help.” Another recent article quoted a doctor as saying, “Essentially, patients who use marijuana very frequently for long periods of time—usually at least six months, probably most of them have been using for several years—develop sort of intractable abdominal pain and vomiting that sort of comes and goes over the course of days to weeks.”
A third recent article referenced a doctor that claimed, “She has seen a rise in the number of cases since California voters legalized recreational marijuana last November. She expects to see another increase after commercial sales are permitted starting in January.”
All of those articles were just from the last handful of days, and there are plenty more out there from the last couple of weeks that make similar claims. The flare-up in coverage is not a new phenomenon. The same thing happened in 2012 after Colorado and Washington State voted to legalize marijuana, the same thing happened in Oregon in 2014 after it legalized, and now it’s happening in states that legalized in 2016. I will imagine it will occur after every other state legalizes as well because for some reason the mainstream media seems to like keeping up the cycle.
One state that seems to have avoided the same flare-up in coverage is Alaska. Cannabis has been somewhat legal in Alaska since Ravin v. State (1975) was decided, which involved the Alaska Supreme Court upholding the Alaska Constitution’s right to privacy and protects an adult’s ability to use and possess a cannabis in their home. Full legalization was approved by Alaska voters in 2014. Alaska has the highest rate of cannabis use in the nation. Why has there not been a reported cannabinoid hyperemesis epidemic in Alaska?
The fact of the matter is that the cases are really rare. The way mainstream media articles cover it, it makes it appear to be more common than it really is. When a doctor says that they ‘see it more often since legalization’ but the claim is not coupled with mathematical figures, it’s really a subjective nothingburger. It’s quite possible that doctors could just be looking for symptoms more now since legalization occurred, or that doctors were instructed to look more for symptoms post-legalization.
It could be that the patients don’t even have the condition and that doctors are using it as a diagnosis because it’s easy. It could be that the patients do indeed have the condition and that doctors are just now keeping an unofficial tally of it in their minds and it seems like the amount of cases has increased when it really hasn’t.
Per an NPR article, ‘There’s no hard data on the prevalence of the illness.’ The same article, of course, went on to reference in the same paragraph a study in Colorado that ‘suggests there may be a link’ between marijuana reform and a rise in cases of cannabinoid hyperemesis. The study referenced by NPR involved the identification of just 36 patients suffering from the condition between June 1, 2010, to May 31, 2011, which was the time period immediately following a huge increase in the number of medical marijuana patients in Colorado.
The study states that ‘the number of medical marijuana licenses in the state rose from 5,051 in January 2009 to 118,895 in January 2011.’ The simple math means that at the same time there were a reported 118,895 medical cannabis patients in Colorado, only 36 people were identified as being diagnosed with cannabinoid hyperemesis. That’s not exactly an epidemic, especially considering how many non-medical cannabis users there also were in Colorado at the time and may have contributed to the number of diagnosed cases.
One study, conducted by the Mayo Clinic which employs more than 4,500 physicians and scientists, searched all of their electronic medical records from January 1, 2005, through June 15, 2010, looking for cases of cannabinoid hyperemesis. They identified a total of only 98 patients that met the study’s inclusion criteria (long-term marijuana use before the start of symptoms, a history of recurrent vomiting, and the absence of a major illness that could explain the symptoms). Again, I don’t want to downplay the seriousness of the people that suffered from the condition, but the cases are extremely rare as the available math clearly shows.
I do not know why the mainstream media is obsessed with ‘scromiting’ but it’s safe to say that their fears are extremely overblown. It’s also safe to say that when marijuana opponents try to act like there is an epidemic of cannabinoid hyperemesis following marijuana reform victories, and that it somehow justifies reversing the reforms, that it is pure reefer madness propaganda.
How many people scream and vomit and have abdominal pain in emergency rooms after consuming alcohol? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an average of 2,221 alcohol poisoning deaths occur every year among persons aged ≥15 years in the United States. Yet, you never hear opponents like Kevin Sabet pushing alcohol prohibition, just cannabis prohibition. Why is that?
When you see articles pop up about ‘scromiting’ remember the math involved, look objectively at what is being said (and the lack of statistics backing the claims), and don’t believe the hype! If you know someone that appears to be suffering from the condition, recommend that they take hot baths and refrain from consuming cannabis. If that doesn’t work, which it usually does, then suggest that they seek medical help.