Original cannabis journalism for Canadians

4/20 and cannabis 'overdoses'

Smoke hangs over the crowd as thousands of people smoke marijuana during the annual 4/20 celebration in Vancouver Friday. 
 (Darryl Dyck / The Canadian Press)

Smoke hangs over the crowd as thousands of people smoke marijuana during the annual 4/20 celebration in Vancouver Friday.

The most popular 4/20 celebration in Canada resulted in a series of hospital visits for cannabis "overdoses," according to local authorities — and yes, there's a reason for those quotation marks.

In the hazy aftermath of Vancouver's enormous 4/20 jamboree, about 40 people were admitted to nearby St. Paul's Hospital for so-called overdoses, reported Bob Kronbauer for the local publication Vancouver is Awesome. None of those patients had to stay overnight, and four of them were under the age of 18.

Separately, Vancouver police said they received 10 overdose calls, eight of which resulted in hospital visits. In a Tweet, Vancouver Coastal Health said it "treated an additional 185 people at Sunset Beach and at a nearby medical post. Majority had consumed edibles."

"Overdose" is a loaded word, especially in the context of Canada's ongoing, deadly fentanyl crisis. Wisely, Kronbauer didn't just use the word "overdose" in his article without qualification; instead, he checked with BC Emergency Health Services:

"A cannabis 'overdose' is officially considered a 'poisoning'," wrote Kronbauer. "Most of the ones St Paul’s treated were a result of people not properly dosing their edibles. They're recorded as 'complications from ingesting' by BCEHS."

"Symptoms include rapid heart rate, hallucinations, mental confusion, panic attacks and extreme paranoia. Basically just getting too stoned, according to one enthusiast I interviewed for this piece."

The symptoms that might lead a cannabis user to seek urgent medical care could be best described as an "adverse reaction" rather than an "overdose," said Rebecca Haines-Saah, an assistant professor of community health sciences at the University of Calgary

Haines-Saah isn't a physician, but she studies drug policy from a public-health perspective. To her, an "overdose" is a situation where medical intervention is required to prevent death or serious harm. An "adverse reaction," however, is not a life-or-death matter.

"It's very distressing and worrisome, but they don't require that very time-sensitive intervention in order to remain alive," she said.

"I think it's about how we're portraying drug panics in media… we have a responsibility not to call it (an) overdose."

Aside from an important lesson in word choice, this story serves as another reminder that cannabis edibles can be powerful, especially for novice users.

"I think it's even more support for bringing edibles into the legalized framework as soon as possible so that people know what supply they're taking, and having a sensible public health campaign in a legalized context," said Haines-Saah.

What could that kind of public health campaign look like? Haines-Saah cited "First Time Five," a Colorado campaign that advised cannabis edible newbies to limit their inaugural dose to five milligrams of THC.

Getting that kind of knowledge out to the Canadian public could mean fewer "overdoses" next April 20.


New on The Leaf

  • Dope rhyme: Did you miss our exclusive 4/20 poem? It's not too late!
  • Not the last 4/20: In Winnipeg, cannabis lovers spent 4/20 celebrating and contemplating the future of the herb in Friendly Manitoba.
  • Cross-border shopping: Cannabis firms in the U.S. are starting to look at Canadian stock exchanges, and vice-versa.

Elsewhere on the Weed Wide Web

  • 'The government will make a lousy, uncompetitive pot dealer': That's the latest hot take from CBC reporter-turned-pundit Neil Macdonald, who excoriates Ontario and Quebec's plans to sell legal cannabis exclusively through government-operated retailers.
  • Busted at the border: Could digital cannabis sales data end up on U.S. servers? And could that data then be used by U.S. border officers to keep Canadians out of their country? Global News reporter Patrick Cain takes that idea and runs with it.
  • Price check on aisle 420: What's legal medical cannabis cost in Canada? Numbers whiz Brad Martin tracks it all, and makes his findings available online.

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