A cautionary tale

September, 2018

With the introduction of legal recreational use of marijuana, we will be seeing an increase in overdoses when people who haven’t used it in years, if ever, unwittingly take more than they can tolerate. That’s what happened to me and my wife, Kathy, in early September.

I have Parkinson’s disease and last year, with the acquiescence (if not the encouragement) of my doctor, I decided to experiment with marijuana as a treatment. Friends who had prescriptions immediately offered samples, including edibles and vaporizers, so I could give it a try before getting a prescription.

It didn’t do anything for me. It was as if I hadn’t taken it. So I put it aside until more than a year later, when Kathy had terrible, cry-out-loud muscle spasms in her back. At first we controlled them with heat, ice, stretching, ibuprofen and wine but they resumed, more intense, shortly after we went to sleep.

She woke me up with her cries of pain, every 20 seconds or so. We tried everything once again, but this time nothing touched it.

Then I remembered the brownie. Commercially packed in an air-tight wrapper, labeled “The Perfect Brownie” it claimed to have “500MG THC.” THC is the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis. There was also this confusing message: “CAUTION. This is a high potency medication. Effects may be delayed as much as two hours.”

If it is so high potency, why the delay, I wondered. We didn’t want to wait two more hours, so when Kathy asked how much she should eat, I said “all of it.”

I should have Googled it. But we were under a lot of stress. She ate it all, and the back pain went away very quickly. Two hours later she was awake, having hallucinations, paralyzed and frightened. She told me to call 911.

The Sandwich EMTs arrived around 3:30 AM and were very reassuring. They took her vitals, told us they were excellent, and told Kathy she was far from the first person they had seen overdosed on THC.

Cape Cod Hospital’s ER is a first-class facility, with private rooms; and when Kathy used it on D-Day, 2017, the doctors were all over her. They quickly diagnosed a minor stroke and spent a lot of time with us discussing what that was and what it meant for her health.

This time was very different, and it took a while to figure out why. After admission we were simply left alone with nurses looking in every so often. No discussion of the THC dose she took and how long it takes to get over taking too much. Worse, they offered no explanation for the fact that there was no improvement in her condition. Instead they kept telling her she should go home even though she could neither stand nor walk.

After talking to a case manager, we decided she would stay in the ER overnight and get a PT evaluation in the morning.

I went home and tried to sleep. At 5 in the morning I got a text from Kathy. “I can walk! Talk! Have my mind back.” 26 hours after overdosing she was completely recovered. I cheered!

Since then I have learned much more about cannabis and THC overdoses from the Internet, family and friends than I ever learned at the hospital. It is the CBD in cannabis that kills the pain, and CBD does not make you high. THC is the problem and cannabis has much more than it had when I was in my 20s.

A normal dose of THC is only 10 MG. The maximum dose one should ingest from an edible is 100 MG, and that is only for experienced users, mostly cancer patients. Kathy had taken five times that amount.

I also learned that recovery from an overdose can be hastened by hydration. They never gave Kathy a saline drip, nor told her to drink a lot of water, nor provided any.

But the most important thing I learned came from a friend who works in a federally supported clinic in Boston. He told me “…where I work, we are prohibited by federal regulations from even talking about MJ or THC. Apparently any facility that receives federal funding is under said limitation. It is a crazy and harmful regulation.”

Another friend told me that stores selling MJ for recreational use are also forbidden from talking about things like dosage. If I had bought my 500 MG brownie there would they have told me to take small bites?

There needs to be a way for those who know to inform those of us who do not or there will be a lot more of us spending a night in the Emergency Room. And hospitals need better protocols for handling those who do end up in the ER.

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