Study Suggests Link Between Medical Marijuana and Hospitalizations

As medical marijuana is debated across the country, one of the pressing issues in the debate is the question of legalization’s social cost. By now most people accept that the “Reefer Madness” depiction of marijuana is ludicrous, but many still question the medical safety of marijuana; and a new study published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence only serves to stoke those fires.

Analyzing hospitalizations in California from 2001 to 2012, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that areas with medical marijuana dispensaries had a 6.8 percent increase in the number of marijuana-related hospitalizations. Overall, the number of marijuana-related hospitalizations rose from 17,000 in 2001 to 68,000 in 2012.

In addition to their findings, researchers found that areas with a higher density of medical marijuana dispensaries also had a low population density, a higher percentage of low-income households and fewer residents with college degrees.

To come to their conclusion, researchers analyzed population data and related hospitalizations coded for marijuana abuse or dependency. They then compared the zip codes of where the admittance happened to medical marijuana dispensaries in the area.

Approximately 85 percent of the marijuana-related hospitalizations were coded by health workers as “marijuana abuse” while only 15 percent were coded as “marijuana dependence.” In a statement, lead researcher Christina Mair said the study underscores the importance of better understanding marijuana’s impact.

“As marijuana is approved for medical or recreational use, we need to carefully consider where we allow dispensaries to be placed,” Mair said. “Our study indicates that there are real problems associated with a higher density of marijuana dispensaries in neighborhoods.”

While the results of this study may seem like damning evidence for medical marijuana’s safety, there are a few important caveats to consider for this study.

In 99 percent of cases studied by researchers, marijuana abuse/dependence was marked as the secondary code, which means that marijuana was not the primary reason for admittance. This begs the question, why were subjects admitted in the first place?

To suggest that medical marijuana dispensaries are leading to an increase of hospitalizations is a bit of a stretch. One can draw a lot of assumptions from an incomplete picture, but none of them will be right without all of the facts. When it comes to data, context is key and this study has provided very little.

With regards to medical marijuana dispensaries and low-income households, that is not unexpected. Most medical marijuana states have buffer zones and certain rules regarding where medical marijuana dispensaries can be built. Because of these buffer zones, dispensaries are often built away from high-income areas due to higher concentrations of schools, religious institutions and day cares.

This study still raises interesting questions about the effects of medical marijuana, but the results must be taken with a grain of salt once external factors are considered.

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