With the most recent election, more state governments have legalized recreational marijuana use, and it’s likely that nationwide legalization isn’t far behind. But even as these frontrunners are celebrating recent legal changes, more complications are coming to light. One area of concern for health care professionals is the impact that legalizing marijuana will have on emergency departments and the nurses who staff them.
Washington and Colorado were the first two states to make recreational marijuana use legal, and both have seen an uptick in cannabis-related emergency room visits. Cannabis-related emergency room visits in Colorado more than doubled for vacationers who chose to partake. Health care professionals attribute the visits largely to first-time marijuana users not prepared for the sensations marijuana can induce, including anxiety and paranoia. In some instances, however, marijuana use has exacerbated existing or underlying medical conditions.
Another issue is accidental ingestion of marijuana edibles by young children, particularly under age 5. These children were most usually sluggish and required close supervision and fluid administration until the drug effects wore off.
By far, one of the biggest concerns with recreational marijuana legalization is the increase in the number of people driving while under the influence. Both Washington and Colorado have experienced sharp increases in the number of accidents related to cannabis use. The number of traffic fatalities related to marijuana use increased 154% between 2006 and 2014. But that seems paltry compared to Washington's numbers: Cannabis-related fatalities in Washington doubled from 2013 to 2014.
Much like alcohol or substance addiction, marijuana abuse is also creating problems for health care workers. For example, in Colorado, 8% of all admissions to drug treatment facilities were for marijuana abuse. And Northpoint Recovery estimates that nearly a quarter of all drug treatment admissions are related to marijuana.
Marijuana legalization has left health care professionals and emergency department members scrambling to develop new practices for managing cannabis-related medical treatment. Though there are no documented deaths from direct marijuana use, the effects of marijuana can create a false sense of urgency in some users who then seek unnecessary medical attention. The increase in marijuana-related car accidents can also add to an already hectic workload in the emergency department.
One way nurses can prepare to deal with patients suffering marijuana effects is to educate themselves about marijuana, including the effects it can have on the human psyche. Nurses can then use that information to educate patients. Beyond that, nurses should be prepared to spend time gathering details from patients about the extent of their marijuana use. And of course, have patience! Most of the patients that present with symptoms related to marijuana use will need nothing more than some reassurance and a little time to come down from the high.