Channel 2 Investigates

As more states legalize pot, doctors see mysterious illness in heavy users

ATLANTA — More people than ever are using marijuana. But as a growing number of states legalize pot, doctors are seeing a mysterious and dangerous illness in heavy pot users.

It's called cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome, or CHS. It affects nearly three million marijuana users. It can cause uncontrolled vomiting and organ failure. In extreme cases, it can be deadly.

Alice Moon used to promote pot as a popular influencer on Instagram who reviewed edibles. "I was using like ten milligrams of edibles a day, maybe half a joint a day," said Moon.

But then something strange happened last year. "And I threw up every day for 14 days," Moon said.

At first, her doctors were perplexed. But then they suspected the marijuana she used was causing cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome. "I was still in denial until a doctor told me that it was this," Moon said.


She gave up pot and switched to hemp-derived CBD. But she got sick again. "I ultimately landed in the emergency room and was hospitalized for four days.  It was an absolute nightmare, and I almost died," Moon said.

Like Moon, more people are getting seriously ill from CHS. Doctors at Grady Memorial Hospital told Channel 2 Action News they are treating patients every week. "We have seen a lot of cases, both young and middle-aged people coming with episodes where they have uncontrolled vomiting," said Dr. Jonathan De Olano, a medical toxicologist and emergency room doctor at the hospital.

He said the cause of CHS is not completely known. But it's believed in daily marijuana users, the high-inducing THC bonds with receptors and molecules in the digestive tract in a hostile way. "And as a result of that imbalance that can lead to excessive amounts of vomiting," De Olano said.

One of the signs of CHS is taking frequent hot baths or showers to relieve vomiting.

CHS is treatable if the person stops using marijuana. But then there are others like Brian Smith. "Even up till he passed away we didn't believe it was caused by marijuana," said Smith's mother, Regina Denney.

She painfully recounted her 17-year-old son's horrible bouts of sickness and ER trips triggered by his heavy marijuana use. "We get to the desk and he projectile vomited, his muscles contract. He can hardly talk. It looks like he's having a stroke," Denney said.

Doctors told her Brian's kidneys were shutting down. He eventually recovered. They said he had CHS and had to quit smoking pot. He did for a short time but went back.

A few months later, paramedics rushed to her home. Her son was dying. "The paramedic came out and said I'm so sorry. And I knew when she came to the door that look on her face. I hit the floor," said Denney.

An autopsy attributed Brian's death to CHS. As she grieves the loss of her only son, Denney wants more research on the link between marijuana and CHS. "Because this is real. One person losing their life to it is too many," Denney said.

Moon still believes marijuana can be beneficial. But for some, too much is harmful. "I don't want to take cannabis away from anyone at all. I just want people to know about the potential side effects," Moon said.

She and doctors said more research needs to be done to learn why some people develop CHS and others don't.

Doctors say one possible reason for the increase in CHS is today's marijuana is more potent than what people used decades ago.