If you suffer episodes of violent retching and abdominal pain that leave you writhing on the floor, wishing for death or calling out to deceased relatives, you probably need to see a doctor. But, according to a flurry of recent news reports, you might also just need to put down the joint.
An obscure syndrome dubbed "cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome" has been generating headlines in recent weeks, with emergency room doctors in California and Colorado reporting seeing an uptick in cases. The syndrome, reportedly first documented in Australia more than a decade ago, is believed to affect a tiny subset of heavy marijuana partakers who smoke multiple times a day for months at a stretch. The illness presents with acute bouts of nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain that can last up to 48 hours before subsiding.
NPR shared the story of Chalfonte LeNee Queen, a 48-year-old San Diegan, who suffered through 17 years of "pain, vomiting and mental fog." Queen told NPR that she sought out countless doctors, went through a battery of tests and became convinced she was dying of some unknown, undetectable form of cancer before learning she had the syndrome. She's since cut back to smoking "a couple of times a day" and now only suffers periodic dull stomachaches, according to NPR's report.
NPR also reports that the "exact cause" of the condition is a mystery, though toxicologists theorize that the chemical compounds in marijuana may disrupt the normal function of the body's nervous-system-regulating cannabinoid receptors.
Roneet Lev, the director of operations at Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego, told NBC 7 that her emergency room sees about one patient a day presenting symptoms consistent with the condition, namely screaming and vomiting. In fact, Lev's ER is seeing enough patients with the symptoms that its staff has turned them into a new word: scromiting.
There's no known cure for the syndrome and doctors have expressed frustration that all they can do is tell patients to put down the weed and take a hot shower.
Toxicologists say the heat of a hot shower or bath can distract pain receptors in the abdomen and provide some relief. But that's short-lived. The only long-term path to a scromiting-free existence is to simply stop smoking cannabis, a truth some patients — like Queen — aren't ready to accept.
What's interesting is that there is no test that can confirm a case of cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome and nothing to distinguish it from the more pedestrian cyclic vomiting syndrome, which is essentially the same syndrome minus the cannabis use. This raises the question: Are all these scromitters simply people suffering from cyclic vomiting syndrome — which similarly has no identifiable cause or treatment — who also just happen to smoke a shit ton of weed?
Some on the pro-cannabis side of things have also questioned whether all this scromiting could stem from people smoking marijuana tainted with pesticides or some kind of mold. There's no known study that has tried to tackle that question. So there's a lot of uncertainty surrounding this ugly uptick in cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome.
But there are a couple of pretty obvious takeaways here.
First, if you do find yourself doubled over in wretched, retching pain, try laying off the weed for a few days. Second, if you can't do that, maybe get your next bag from a new dealer or dispensary and see if that helps. And whatever you do, don't just keep toking with the hopes it will make all the scromiting subside.
Thadeus Greenson is the news editor at the Journal. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.