Cannabislegalization is coming up fast on Oct. 17, and in the lead up to it, various news organizations across the country are swinging into full fearmongering mode as they warn about the dangers of cannabis overdoses.
“Cannabis overdose”. Sounds scary, right? Especially considering we’re in the midst of an opioid crisis, you might be thinking that we don’t need people overdosing on cannabis, too.
But what the media often fails to mention is that cannabis is not a hard drug, nor will it kill you.
That’s not to say that people don’t take too much and feel uncomfortable. In the last few years, Ontario has seen hospital visits for “THC poisoning” triple- from 449 in 2014 to nearly 1500 in 2017, according to the CBC. But that’s also to be expected as more people try cannabis for the first time- and besides, the numbers of cannabis-related hospital visits are just a drop in the bucket compared to alcohol-related hospital visits.
Ontario had 24,200 alcohol-related hospitalizations in 2015-2016. That’s 16X more than 2017’s number of cannabis-related hospital visits, but since alcohol is already ingrained and socially accepted, we don’t hear too much about those- it’s just business as usual for the alcohol industry.
Symptoms of a cannabis overdose AKA “greening out”
“Cannabis overdoses” are also referred to as THC poisoning, cannabis poisoning, or “greening out”. Symptoms include sweating, turning pale, nausea, “elevated heart rate and blood pressure, anxiety, vomiting and in some cases psychosis, possibly necessitating hospitalization”, according to the CBC.
Some people may even pass out, so if someone is showing symptoms of greening out, make sure they are in a safe position (like sitting or lying down), so they will not be injured by the fall if they faint.
What to do if you have a “cannabis overdose”?
A cannabis overdose sounds terrifying, but one of the worst parts of greening out is the psychological symptoms. As long as you’re able to take deep breaths and calm yourself down, you should be fine. Just repeatedly tell yourself that the effects are only temporary and will go away, although people with underlying medical conditions (particularly heart conditions) should be particularly cautious if this happens to them.
For most cases, it won’t require hospitalization- just take a few deeps breaths, drink some water, do your best to stay calm, and lie down (preferably on your side).
If you do go to the hospital, you’ll be told the exact same thing- drink some water and try to calm down. In more extreme cases, anti-anxiety pills and heart medications may be provided.
When the CBC asked emergency room physician Dr. Michael Szabo what kind of burden these cannabis-related emergencies are on resources, he said:
“It’s a huge burden. They’re occupying beds. They’re occupying nursing time, physician time,” Szabo said.
If people were more informed, they would know that in the vast majority of cases, greening out does not require a hospital visit, and yet, at the end of the very CBC segment that inspired this piece, it encourages anybody who experiences the symptoms of a cannabis overdose to go to the hospital!
For many people that green out, it’s because they bit off more than they could chew- whether it was they ate too much of an edible too fast (or they didn’t know it was an edible in the first place), at least with cannabis, it won’t kill you, even if you do “overdose” on it- unlike alcohol.
In most green outs, edibles are to blame. It’s very easy for people to accidentally consume too much of an edible because they didn’t wait long enough for the edible to kick in (which can take over an hour) before eating more. And once you’ve eaten it, there’s no going back.
At least with smoking cannabis, you can more easily regulate your dosage. If you’re starting to feel too high, just pass on the next rotation and try to relax. Have some water and listen to some music.
Another reason why edibles so often lead to greening out is the strength and varieties of edibles also vary widely- from gummies to brownies to cannabis-infused cuisine- and as unregulated products, there can be lesser quality controls when it comes to the edibles market. Health Canada has said it won’t even consider regulating edibles until at least 2019, and so until that happens, edibles will still be technically illegal.
Dr. Szabo told CBC that he blamed edibles for the spike in cannabis-related hospital visits because:
“Nothing’s labelled properly. The serving size is not clearly marked so they’re eating a whole brownie, not realizing they’re only supposed to eat one-eighth of that brownie.”
How to prevent greening out
Doctors and health groups have called for better labelling and clear dosage instructions, which would undoubtedly help, but people need to be responsible and know their limit.
Just like how you wouldn’t down a 190 proof shot of grain alcohol if you were trying alcohol for the first time, you don’t want to eat a 400 mg (of THC) gummie for your first edible experience. That would be insane.
Also, if you’re new to cannabis, it’s highly recommended that you let people know what you’re trying and have someone to watch you just in case you have a negative reaction.
So, much like the first time trying anything new, start low and go slow.