Brian Smith suffered from cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome (CHS) and died at the age of 17
Doctors have reported rising cases of a rare but fatal condition linked to significant marijuana use, which causes intense vomiting, dehydration and abdominal pain.
Daily marijuana smokers are at risk of developing cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome (CHS), which researchers warn could become more common as marijuana becomes increasingly legal. It can be used recreationally in 22 US states.
Brian Smith, 17, died in Indiana in October 2018 from dehydration due to CHS.
Smith is one of four known deaths linked to CHS – the others are a 27-year-old female, a 27-year-old male, and a 31-year.
However, there are numerous cases of people with the condition being hospitalized for weeks.
One woman from Boston, who deemed herself an ‘Olympic smoker’, spent more than two weeks in the hospital.
ER doctor Sam Torbati said CHS is a ‘relatively unique condition that we see with patients who use relatively large amounts of marijuana – at least 20 times in a month.
‘Patients who suffer from this condition have recurrent bouts of vomiting and abdominal pain.
‘They’re terrifically symptomatic and can get very sick.’
CHS is a rare illness that comes as a result of chronic and prolonged usage of cannabis. Symptoms of CHS include extreme vomiting, nausea, dehydration, stomach pain and death in rare cases.
In the brain, marijuana often helps to prevent nausea and vomiting. However, in the digestive tract, marijuana has the opposite effect and makes nausea and vomiting more likely to occur.
Some doctors believe CHS is due to overstimulation of the endocannabinoid system, a network of receptors in the body that respond to compounds in cannabis.
Dr Torbati said he has seen increasing CHS cases at Cedars-Sinai Hospital.
Marijuana can be used recreationally in 22 US states
Some doctors believe CHS is due to overstimulation of the endocannabinoid system, which is a network of receptors in the body that respond to compounds in cannabis
But diagnosing the condition is difficult.
Dr Torbati said: ‘There’s no test that we can do. There’s no blood test. It doesn’t show up on a CAT scan. I can’t really show you an image to say, this is what CHS looks like.
Mr Smith, who died in 2018 from CHS, first went to the hospital with his mother, Regina Denney, to complain about severe vomiting and abdominal pain and, at the time, had lost about 30 pounds in a single month.
His mother, Regina Denney, told ABC News: ‘The first time I noticed the vomiting was April 7. He was vomiting so much that he said he felt tingling in his face and hands.’
She said: ‘The doctors took Brian ahead of me. I came in, and he had IVs in both arms; he was on oxygen. They said that the muscle contraction was an anxiety attack from the vomiting.
‘They did say he was dehydrated. His kidneys went into failure.’
Mr Smith agreed to give up marijuana for 45 days, but when the symptoms did not stop, he got annoyed and began smoking again.
His death came as a shock to his mother six months after his diagnosis.
‘He said, ‘Mom, I can’t breathe.’ I rolled him over, and my son was gone,’ Ms Denney told RTV6.
Erica Hagler started a support group on Facebook for those who are recovering to share their symptoms
Ms Denney said: ‘I had to process that because weed doesn’t kill you. But it did.’
She added: ‘I don’t want another family to go through what we have.‘
A Canadian study found that CHS-related ER visits shot up 13-fold over seven years between 2014 and 2021.
Commercial sales skyrocketed in Canada, as did the choice of cannabis products on the market.
Dr Torbati said more research is essential.
CHS sufferers report serious burns from the scalding hot showers they take to get relief from their symptoms
He said: ‘We became more and more aware of this condition because more and more people are now using marijuana products. They now have far more THC, which believe is the main chemical compound responsible for this.’
In America, cannabis samples seized by the DEA showed that potency tripled from 4 percent THC in 1995 to 12 percent in 2014.
The ratio of THC to CBD also increased from 14 to 80 times greater.
For years, marijuana has been used recreationally and medically to treat chronic pain and nausea, but for some, it causes the opposite, which is why the condition is sometimes misdiagnosed.
Erica Hagler, 38m from Boston, said she used so much marijuana she thought of herself as an ‘Olympic smoker’.
She walked around her house with a bong in hand and would even wake up in the night to have a drag.
Ms Hagler first became sick in August 2018 and told ABC: ‘I ended up in the hospital. I was there for two and a half weeks, constantly vomiting.’
She told Salon: ‘I could not stop vomiting or shaking. I was getting to the point where I couldn’t walk because I was so weak. I lost 30 pounds in three weeks.’
She said: ‘They tested me for everything else underneath the sun and they couldn’t find a diagnosis.’
Ms Hagler did her own research and came across CHS. A doctor confirmed her diagnosis and she gave up marijuana instantly.
She said: ‘Once I knew it was killing me, it was immediate. But for most people, it’s not that easy.’
Ms Hagler started a Facebook support group for those recovering from CHS, creating a place to share their symptoms.
Many in the group suffer horrific burns from scalding hot showers, as the water relieves CHS symptoms, at least temporarily.
One poster said: ‘During my last episode I spent hours and hours in the hot steamy shower through the course of about 10 days and I used such hot water and I was in there for so long that I scalded my back and ended up in the ER.’
Doctors believe that when THC and CBD bind with certain receptors in the body over and over, it can set off serious nausea and vomiting.
It’s thought that using high heat might trigger something in the same receptors that helps symptoms.
CHS has no cure, but doctors say patients must give up marijuana.
Dr Torbati said: ‘Patients will say, well I stopped for two weeks and I didn’t get better, so it must not be this condition that you’re labeling me with.
‘And we educate and say, really, you’re gonna need to stop for months.’