CARSON CITY -- A federal study that shows drug-related emergency room
visits are on the rise takes aim at marijuana use.

The survey, by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services
Administration, said drug-related emergency room visits rose 6 percent in
2001 over the previous year, to 638,484.

The number of times marijuana was mentioned as a drug patients used rose 15
percent, the study said, greater than the increase in cocaine use, which
rose 10 percent, and heroin and methamphetamine, which were unchanged.

The study, which surveys 458 hospital emergency rooms nationwide, comes as
Nevada and Arizona consider ballot questions that would legalize or
decriminalize marijuana.

"Marijuana-related medical emergencies are increasing at an alarming rate,
exceeding even those for heroin," White House Drug Czar John Walters said
in a prepared statement. "This report helps dispel the pervasive myth that
marijuana is harmless.

"In reality, marijuana is a dangerous drug, and adults and youth alike
should be aware of the serious consequences that can come from smoking it."

Billy Rogers, leader of the campaign to pass Nevada's ballot question,
which would legalize possession of up to three ounces of marijuana,
disputed the conclusions.

"They're not talking about marijuana emergencies," Rogers said. "Nobody has
died from an overdose of marijuana."

When patients go to an emergency room, they are asked what, if any, drugs
they have taken. The federal Drug Abuse Warning Network counts the mentions
of illegal drugs and misused prescription drugs reported by patients, and
those are compiled into the twice-a-year study. Often patients said they
had taken more than one drug.

Alcohol in combination with other drugs was the most frequently mentioned
nationwide, at 34 percent, with cocaine at 30 percent, marijuana at 17
percent and heroin, 15 percent.

Marijuana had been used in combination with other drugs 76 percent of the
time it was mentioned; 24 percent of the time, it was the sole drug used.

The increase in marijuana use reflected in emergency room visits drew
federal concern. Between 1994 and 2001, mentions of marijuana per 100,000
emergency room patients rose 151 percent, compared with 34 percent for
heroin and 22 percent for cocaine.

The rate for patients age 12 to 17, although stable from 2000 to 2001,
increased 23 percent from 1999 to 2001, the report said.

"The clear message of the DAWN survey is that in already crowded emergency
rooms, increasingly, one of the reasons people are showing up is marijuana
use," said Mark Weber, spokesman for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health
Services Administration.

"It's taking resources from other parts of the health care sector. If you
have 10 people in a room, how do you prioritize?"

The study gave separate reports for 21 cities, but Las Vegas was not among
them. Neither the state nor county health division had statistics for
Nevada or Las Vegas on those treated in emergency rooms with marijuana
problems, and University Medical Center does not track drug use by type of
drug, a spokesman said.

Local paramedics said they have noticed an increase in drug use overall in
Las Vegas, but not in marijuana, said Tammy Bame, spokeswoman for American
Medical Response.

"No one seems to feel there is an increase," Bame said. "There's nothing
that really stands out."

AMR paramedic Shannon Cavey said Thursday the top drugs she sees in the Las
Vegas area are crystal meth, GHB and Ecstasy, drugs not frequently used
with marijuana.

"We see a lot more of those than people just getting high (on marijuana),"
Cavey said.

Alcohol, another depressant, is the drug most commonly associated with
marijuana use, she said.

In fact, pot is rarely a topic during her shifts, she said.

"I don't hear about it much in the field," Cavey said.

An informal poll at Valley Hospital showed a similar result. Emergency room
personnel have not noticed any increase in marijuana-related cases,
spokeswoman Gretchen Pappas said.

"We haven't seen anything like that," Pappas said.

Weber, of SAMHSA, agreed that in Western cities use of club drugs and
methamphetamine has been more prevalent since the early 1990s. But across
the country, he said, more young people are in drug treatment for marijuana
dependence that all other illegal drugs combined.

As with any depressant, marijuana can be dangerous when taken with other
depressants, Cavey said. However, a marijuana-only overdose is rare, said
Cavey, who has been a paramedic for 10 years.

"I have never even seen anyone overdose on marijuana," Cavey said. "It's
always been mixed with something else."

Rogers said there is going to be a lot of smoke blown in this election
campaign and his job is to cut through it to get the facts.

Besides allowing the possession of up to three ounces of marijuana by
adults, the constitutional amendment would allow the state Legislature to
set up "pot shops" to distribute marijuana.

It would still be illegal for minors to possess the drug.

"Nevadans are smart enough to know that heroin and cocaine are dangerous
and marijuana is less dangerous," Rogers said.

Source: Las Vegas Sun (NV)
Copyright: 2002 Las Vegas Sun, Inc
Author: Cy Ryan