Marijuana disease among youth rises as Missoula dispensaries crowd

Martin Kidton

(Missoula Current) Hospitalizations among Missoula’s youngest residents for marijuana disease have increased sharply over the past five years, including a growing number of cases of intoxication, psychosis, anxiety and withdrawal.

Health experts and city leaders are now wondering if Montana’s laws regarding packaging and advertising for marijuana products are strong enough, or if state and local officials are properly enforcing them.

“The City and City Council need to look at what our sideboards are and what we can do to enforce it,” Councilor Amber Sherrill said. “All around us there are examples of the packaging not being what the code says, the advertising not being what they say. If you look at Big Tobacco’s playbook, that’s exactly what it looks like.”

Leah Fitch-Brody, the substance use disorder prevention coordinator at the Missoula City-County Health Department, said alcohol and cigarette use among Missoula teens has declined over the past 20 years, although marijuana has bucked those trends.

According to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, nearly 25% of Missoula youth now use marijuana on a regular basis. Fitch-Brody said health officials noticed a “quite an increase” in the number of high school students using marijuana regularly between 2019 and 2021.

Perceptions of whether marijuana use is harmful are also declining among teenagers in Missoula. According to Fitch-Brody, this correlates with growth in usage, which also explains the increase in adolescent emergency room visits and hospital admissions.

“What we’ve seen from more than 20,000 studies of the harms associated with marijuana is that it’s more harmful to teens,” she said. “Young people in legalized states use much stronger products because they are available, and higher doses are more likely to lead to anxiety, paranoia, agitation and psychosis.”

Some of these psychological issues can come with long-term effects associated with THC, which has become purer in recent years. In 2000, the concentration of THC – the active ingredient in cannabis – was around 5%. According to Fitch-Brody, that percentage rose to 17% in 2017, and some products now contain concentrates that are 99% pure.

In Montana, marijuana is already the number one reason teens between the ages of 12 and 17 seek medical treatment, local health experts said.

“I have a good friend who is an ER doctor, and that’s what he sees in the ER at St. Pat’s,” Sherrill said. “They come with schizophrenic symptoms. It’s a real thing that our doctors and our community are dealing with.”

High density of marijuana dealers in Missoula

Montana voters in 2020 approved recreational marijuana, allowing adults over the age of 21 to possess up to 1 ounce of weed. In 2020, the newly passed law allowed medical marijuana distributors to begin selling recreational cannabis. Next year, this will expand to all marijuana operators.

But if voters think legalizing marijuana was a good thing, Missoula may have too much of it, according to health officials. The city currently has 52 pharmacies with active storefronts. Many of these are concentrated in some of the city’s lowest-income neighborhoods.

“Public Health Service recommends one pharmacy for every 15,000 people,” Fitch-Brody said. “For Missoula County, that would mean we only have eight dispensaries. But we have 52.”

Enforcement of packaging and advertising

While the concentration of marijuana dispensaries has emerged as a potential problem fueling increased use among the city’s youth, state law enforcement could be another.

With the legalization of marijuana, the state has placed limits on advertising. Vendors cannot advertise marijuana or marijuana projects, although they can advertise digitally. But these digital ads cannot contain claims claiming the health benefits of marijuana, nor can they target minors.

The state also introduced restrictions on packaging and product labeling. Logos and designs must not contain symbols and images that may appeal to children, such as: B. Sweets and other temptations. But many believe enforcement is lacking.

dr Chelsea Bodnar
dr Chelsea Bodnar

“Packaging matters, and some of these deeper regulatory capacity and jurisdiction issues matter,” said Dr. Chelsea Bodnar, pediatrician and mother. “But we don’t have to do much more than drive a 12-year-old down the streets of Missoula right now to see where we’re going against the spirit of what we’re doing for the health of our children in our home community.” “

Bodnar cited a local pharmacy whose logo is very similar to Dairy Queen’s, enticing young children to visit. A recently visiting family from Bozeman had a son who wanted a cookie and accidentally walked into a marijuana store.

“While these little guys don’t procure marijuana themselves, the way we deliver it, the way we package it, the way we market it does have an impact on these little guys in the household,” Bodnar said.

Since legalization, other Montana cities have attempted to address issues with the density, advertising, and location of marijuana dispensaries. Recently, Bozeman attempted to limit the number of pharmacies that could operate within city limits – an attempt that was successfully challenged and discarded.

But with more than 220 local youth being treated or hospitalized for marijuana-related illnesses in Missoula, the city council may be taking a closer look at local regulations and enforcement.

“Five or six years ago, I was horrified that 150 kids walked into the emergency room because of cannabis. Now we’re well over 200,” said City Council President Gwen Jones. “We’re going in the wrong direction. We as a community need to be aware of that.”