C.O. hospitals see dramatic spike in pot-related illnesses

ER visits jump nearly 2,000 percent in four years

St. Charles releases marijuana toxicity data

BEND, Ore. - Marijuana-related emergency room visits in Central Oregon have increased by 1,967 percent in recent years, according to St. Charles Health System.

The hospital group released the data to NewsChannel 21 after a request. It shows area hospitals report steady increases in marijuana-sickened patients since at least 2010. The biggest spikes in illness started just before the drug was available for recreational purchase in October.

St. Charles Bend Emergency Department Dr, Gillian Salton attributes the spike to two main groups of people.

"Adults who are not marijuana users who have tried it now that's it's become legal and had adverse reactions, and there's people who are chronic users, but now have more access than they used to," Salton said Tuesday.

Bend Fire and Rescue also reported an increase of marijuana-related calls for service.

"The biggest being edibles, and usually in conjunction with some sort of alcohol," said Emergency Medical Services Capt. Drew Norris. He added that most people they respond to have  "increased heart rates -- they are confused, and some start to get anxious."

Salton said there's no antidote for marijuana, so doctors treat the symptoms with drugs like anti-anxiety medicine.

For children, however, it can be more dangerous.

"Small children sometimes aren't breathing adequately, so we might have to put them on oxygen," Salton said, adding that she's personally treated two children for marijuana toxicity.

"It's horrible," Salton said. "There's a not-insignificant number of children that we're seeing with marijuana overdoses."

Still a majority of the patients are adults. According to the data released by St. Charles, all Central Oregon hospitals combined saw 434 patients for marijuana-related emergency room visits in January.

Compare that to an average of 21 patients a month in 2012, an average of 32 patients a month in 2013, an average of 121 patients a month in 2014 and an average of 196 patients a month in 2015.

Doctors and medics say they're finding the culprit is often edible marijuana-infused products like candy, chocolates and sodas because it's difficult for people to judge how much to ingest.

Salton said she's not surprised by the increase in illnesses.

We've taken something that produces unwanted affects (and) we have not really educated the public well," Salton said.

Because Bend is a popular tourist destination , Salton suspects hospitals will see even more marijuana-induced illnesses in the future.

"We've got marijuana tourism ramping up," Salton said. "I think someone is developing the Bend Bud Trail."

Deschutes County Health Services Prevention Program Supervisor Jessica Jacks said she wasn't aware of the uptick in hospitalizations, but did say the county is working on youth marijuana prevention programs. 

The Oregon Health Authority does not track emergency room visits related to marijuana, but it does track calls to the Oregon Poison Control. OHA documents show calls to the center increased from 12 percent in 2013 to 20 percent in 2015.

Both Salton, Norris and Jacks urge people to use marijuana safely -- and always keep it out of reach of children.

"This is a drug that affects your brain, and it's not safe for everybody," Salton said. "If you have it in your house, you need to treat it the same way that you treat your prescription medications. You need to treat it the same way you would your alcohol."

For more information on marijuana safety and how to protect children, you can visit these websites:

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