Too much medical marijuana can make you sick


That was a headline in the July 26 edition of the Detroit Free Press, above a story about researchers finding 93 cases of regular marijuana users, mostly males, all under 50 years old, whose symptoms included uncontrolled cyclic vomiting, nausea and severe abdominal pain. The only relief seemed to come from daily, hours-long, hot showers or by ceasing marijuana use, according to Dr. Cassius Drake, the medical director at the Henry Ford Health Center-Brownstone in Michigan. It even has a name: “cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome.”


By all means, read the story yourself, but for me, it seemed a bit much. I read as much as I can about cannabis, but I had never found anything, even anecdotally, like this. And even medical doctors, including some who suggest it for chemotherapy patients, know cannabis for its nausea-quelling properties.

So I wondered why this particular story showed up on USA Today, Fox News, CNN, UPI and other local outlets.

It isn’t that the study itself seems particularly fraudulent, although reading it, I certainly got the feeling that the authors weren’t seeking any benevolent medical qualities of cannabis, and their “warning” of many more cases as marijuana is legalized or decriminalized seems more hopeful than scientific.

The headline, “Doctors: Too much medical marijuana can make you sick,” misrepresented the number of physicians who are quoted. The second voice is Susan Smolinske, managing director at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan Regional Poison Control Center, who calls the syndrome “the antimunchies,” whatever that means.

The headline could be an honest mistake, but the reporter even went to the trouble to call Kalamazoo-based Michigan Holistic Health, which could find no cases among its 13,000 clients. I checked the Wikipedia page for the syndrome, which includes this admonition: “While there have been anecdotal testimonies to the veracity of this condition, caution should be exercised concerning this medical evidence due to small numbers of patients studied.”

Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, was quoted in the original news story. I contacted Armentano, who said he suggested a number of things for the reporter to follow up on. “I made clear to her on several occasions that such a phenomenon, when documented, is so rare to be — from a practical standpoint — irrelevant. The reporter largely agreed, noting that she spoke with many physicians and as of the time of our discussion, had yet to even find one familiar with this syndrome.”

Armentano asked why, if millions of Americans “abuse” cannabis, there weren’t more than these few cases. Or whether the cannabis itself might be tainted, resulting in the body becoming nauseous as it tries to rid itself of an unwanted toxin. “I also supposed that this result could be due to a dysfunctional endogenous cannabinoid system in those specific users, which is a valid scientific theory. This discussion somehow became reported by the author as a ‘malfunction of the patient’s internal system,’ which I’m sure meant next to nothing for readers.”

So why is this minimal research paper getting so much attention, while studies that suggest possible positive benefits of cannabis are mostly ignored?

The National Institute on Drug Abuse, established by the federal government in 1974 and now part of the National Institutes of Health, states on its website that it “supports over 85 percent of the world’s research on the health aspects of drug abuse and addiction,” and that “NIDA-supported science addresses the most fundamental and essential questions about drug abuse.”

Well, up to a point. Here’s NIDA spokeswoman Shirley Simson talking to The New York Times in 2010: “As the National Institute on Drug Abuse, our focus is primarily on the negative consequences of marijuana use. We generally do not fund research focused on the potential beneficial medical effects of marijuana.”

So NIDA, which has a virtual monopoly on drug research in the United States (and controls access to all medicinal test cannabis in this country), also has a mission of seeking out only the adverse effects of cannabis in research.

“The federal government still discourages research into the medicinal uses of smoked marijuana,” reporter Gardiner Harris wrote in the Times article that quotes Simson. “That may be one reason that — even though some patients swear by it — there is no good scientific evidence that legalizing marijuana’s use provides any benefits over current therapies.”

Suddenly I’m queasy, I’m feeling sharp abdominal pain and I have an uncontrollable urge for a very long, very hot shower.

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