At age 13, Leonna Davis lost her father to suicide. Years later, a little-known, marijuana-related disease forced Davis to a place where she, too, considered taking her own life.
A recently identified disease caused by chronic use of marijuana, Cannabinoid Hyperemesis Syndrome (CHS), has become increasingly common across the country. Its symptoms — severe stomach pain and nausea, depression and suicidal ideation — have caused increasing health care costs, emotional and physical distress.
Brian Smith Jr., 17-year-old Indiana high school student, died after suffering from dehydration due to the disease, according to the coroner’s report. Neither Smith nor his mother, Regina Denney, believed the doctors when they diagnosed him with CHS. He was dead three months later.
Those who suffer from the illness find relief for their nausea only from scalding hot showers or heating pads. Many never make the connection to their use of marijuana and the gastrointestinal issues nor the depression and suicidal thoughts that come unbidden, having never been evident in these patients before the onset of CHS.
Davis, from Huntsville, Alabama, told American Conservative Voice that marijuana helped ease her pain following her father’s death. It was a relief from her PTSD and anxiety. What the drug was doing to her, however, changed her life dramatically in less than a year.
“Every morning, I’d wake up, and I’d have to throw up. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. It was a complete nightmare,” Davis said. “My episodes would last for hours at a time. I would throw up fifteen times in one, four-hour episode. Once, I threw up for eight hours straight, to the point that my throat was bleeding.”
A trip to the doctor resulted in Davis getting a colonoscopy and endoscopy, the physician thinking her symptoms might be consistent with early-onset colon cancer. The tests, however, came clean. Doctors then shifted their concerns, believing Davis was not being forthcoming about having bulimia. Further testing proved she was not.
“The only thing that ever helped with the nausea was scorching hot, boiling showers,” she said. “I would put hot rags on my face while I was in there. The only thing I could consume was popsicles and only while I was in the shower. And I could drink Ensure shakes. I didn’t eat solid food.”
Davis lost 85 pounds over that year from the time her symptoms began, An unexpected effect of CHS was that her near-constant hot showers increased her utility bills by $100 a month. Despite having good insurance through her work as a dental lab technician, Davis had to spend over $1000 out of pocket for hospital bills. She nearly lost her job because of her frequent absences, even with doctor’s notes.
Eventually, Davis stopped smoking marijuana and her symptoms subsided, “but I didn’t connect the dots,” she said. She began smoking again at the age of 17 and her symptoms came back. When she was 18, she had another colonoscopy, and again the results were normal. She would not receive the CHS diagnosis until earlier this year at age 22.
During yet another hospital stay in January, Davis finally admitted to medical staff that she smokes marijuana regularly. One of her nurses had just completed training regarding CHS and suggested that may be the culprit. She was right.
“I was in the hospital with extreme dehydration. I was in and out of consciousness,” Davis said.
Following the nurse’s revelation, Davis again ceased using marijuana immediately. By June, she was mostly symptom-free. Despite her experience, Davis said that she is not opposed to legalization that would legalize marijuana. Alabama legalized low-grade THC so-called “medical marijuana” since 2014, but there is a push to make the drug legal without a prescription.
Davis’ message regarding CHS is a call for education.
“If you smoke weed,” she said, “please be informed. If you feel like you are starting to feel sick every day, in the mornings especially, and if hot showers are the only thing that helps you, please seek medical advice and mention CHS to get more information. This could kill you. People that continue to smoke have lost their lives because they were so dehydrated and didn’t seek help. I was lucky. I was able to get to the hospital in time.“
Nina Griffith’s story doesn’t match Leonna Davis’ exactly, but it rhymes. She spoke with America’s Conservative Voice for this report.
Originally from Florida, Griffith attended the University of Alabama in 2019. Then she moved to Denver, Colorado. It was in the grip of the CCP virus pandemic that Griffith began smoking marijuana regularly. She admits to feeling isolated, bored, and depressed as the virus scare closed businesses and forced universities strictly to online venues.
Griffith had casually used marijuana prior to the pandemic, but says the “new normal” under the pandemic propelled her smoking into overdrive. Smoking daily and heavily for about four months, she began feeling nauseous every morning. The symptoms of CHS had set in.
“I was nauseous all morning, every morning. I lost almost 30 pounds,” she said.
As Davis discovered, relief came from taking hot showers, as hot as she could stand the water.
“Hot showers were the only thing that helped me,” she explained. “I would spend up to eight hours in the shower, literally just laying there.”
Seeking help from the internet to discover what was wrong with her, Griffith came across information on CHS. After five days of symptoms, and with a vague suspicion of what was causing them, Griffith went to the hospital for the first time. Doctors gave her fluids and confirmed she had the syndrome.
Griffith quit smoking for a short time after the hospital visit. But she took a trip from Denver back to Florida with her boyfriend to see family. Her symptoms returned, even though she did not smoke on the drive across country or once back in the Sunshine state.
“When we got there, I completely shut down,” she said. “That’s when I realized that stress and ‘trigger foods’ could lead to episodes. My sickness ruined the trip.”
When it was time for the return drive across the country, Griffith didn’t think she could make it. Her boyfriend drove back alone. Griffith would fly back a week later when her symptoms had settled.
“I knew then how serious this disease can be,” she said. “It’s been debilitating.”
Now sober for seven months, Griffith says she has felt fine as far as the physical symptoms are concerned, but that she no longer feels “normal.” She is back in school and in December will graduate from UA and from the Colorado Film School. In the fall of 2020, however, she thought she might die from CHS. She still doesn’t feel quite right emotionally.
“Something has permanently changed,” Griffith said.
Sue Justice, an 84-year-old from Springfield, Missouri, told America’s Conservative Voice that stories like those of Davis and Griffith resonate with her. For 30 years, Sue Justice smoked at least four times a week. She has suffered for the last 15 years from the symptoms of CHS, but did not know what they were.
“Pain and nausea, pain and nausea, all the time,” Justice said. “I’d been to the ER four times.”
Once, while sick in the bathroom of her home, Justice fainted. She hit her head on a sink as she fell, causing a severe laceration. When she didn’t come out for some time, her husband came in to check on her, asking what happened.
“I just fainted,” Justice, lying on the marble floor, bleeding, told him. “Just let me lay here.”
In her multiple trips to the Emergency Department of her local hospital, Justice was never asked whether she smoked marijuana. Just as with Leonna Davis, doctors suspected colon cancer and orders a colonoscopy and an endoscopy. Also like Davis’, the results were normal. Doctors then asked Justice to see an oncologist, who suggested that she may have some other form of cancer.
“Cancer” wasn’t what Justice wanted to hear, but at least it was something she could understand.
“And I thought, you know, maybe I have cancer, but at least I’ll know. I’m so sick. Just give me an answer,” she said.
She may have been resigned, but was further disappointed. The oncologist ruled out the possibility after thorough testing. Frustrated and dissatisfied with doctors and technicians to find an answer, Justice turned to where most CHS sufferers end up: The internet. Spending hours a day and days on end trying to find a disease that fit her symptoms, Justice found help in an unlikely place.
There is a Facebook support group for CHS sufferers, and Justice found it. That group, she said, saved her life.
“If I hadn’t found the group,” she said, “I wouldn’t be here today. I might’ve killed myself. I didn’t want to be here anymore.”
There was an additional source of stress for Justice throughout the ordeal of not knowing what was wrong. Her husband’s Alzheimer’s disease was progressing.
“If I’d have had my choice to live or die, I’d have rather been dead,” she bluntly stated. “He was the only reason I didn’t give in to the voices that were telling me to take my life.”
As with countless others before her, once Justice stopped smoking, her symptoms began to subside. The pain and nausea gradually went away. Once she could begin eating normally again, she regained 30 pounds of weight loss, going from 129 pounds back to 155 pounds.
“Some people just don’t want to believe that it’s the pot, but it is,” she said. “It’s nothing but the pot.”
CHS has not changed Justice’s opinion of legalizing marijuana, either. As with Davis and Griffith, her opinion on the legalization of weed, particularly for medicinal uses, remains unchanged.
“Weed is the biggest healer on the planet when used right,” she said. “It will alleviate nausea. It’s the best thing since sliced bread, just not for us.”
The Facebook group, called “Cannabinoid Hyperemesis Syndrome Recovery,” that Justice says saved her life, was set up for precisely that reason. It now has over 12,000 members. A New Englander, Erica Hagler, began the group in mid-2019 following her own long bout with CHS.
Having smoked marijuana for about 18 years, Hagler’s CHS symptoms started around eight years ago, Three years ago, they became unbearable.
“It got to the point where I couldn’t go out anymore,” she told America’s Conservative Voice. “I would start canceling plans, not wanting to hang out with friends.”
As with Justice, Hagler’s nausea and vomiting so dehydrated her that she began having fainting spells. As with most CHS sufferers, she never connected the nausea and suicidal ideation to marijuana.
Hagler soon discovered the dirty little secret Nina Griffith found. Stress brings on more nauseous episodes even when she was not smoking. On a trip taken to Martha’s Vineyard in 2018, Hagler’s then-boyfriend proposed. She was pushed over the emotional edge by the excitement and stress of planning a wedding.
“That’s when I had my first full-blown episode,” she explained. “I went to the hospital for two weeks the day after my engagement.”
As with Davis, Griffith, and Justice, there were not quick, easy, and cut-and-dried answers for Hagler from health care professionals.
“The doctors tested me for everything they could think of,” Hagler said. “It got to the point where they said there’s nothing else we can test you for and asked me to leave the hospital.”
That was of no help to Hagler at all. She lost 20 pounds in just three week, continuing to suffer from nausea, vomiting and suicidal thoughts.
“Once I had started vomiting, I could not stop,” she said. “I almost died.”
Again, the internet came to the rescue. Doing her own research online, Hagler read about CHS. She stopped smoking and slowly began to feel better.
“I had been in another support group that would blame the disease on the pesticides and not the weed itself,” she said.
Dissatisfied with that whitewash, Hagler decided to take matters into her own hands, starting the Facebook support group that Sue Justice credits with saving her life. It has grown by leaps and bounds over the last 18 months.
“People have said I work for ‘big pharma,’ that I’m anti-weed,” Hagler said. “That’s not true. I’m just a person that refused to be sick anymore, and if there was any way I could stop people from feeling the way I was feeling, I was going to do it.”
Dr. Joseph Habboushe has heard many stories like these.
Assistant professor of Clinical Emergency Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College, Habboushe works at emergency rooms across New York City. CHS has become the focus of his research, and he has had multiple published studies on the disease.
“We started seeing more and more patients with this disease, and it was something that we knew very little about,” he told America’s Conservative Voice about CHS. “It’s a syndrome that has been grossly under diagnosed.”
Habboushe finds a paradox in CHS and marijuana. What the drug supposedly cures in some, it causes in others.
“Marijuana decreases nausea in the acute setting and here you have something paradoxical, where it’s increasing nausea and pain,” he said.
One of Habboushe’s own patients sparked his first research on the topic CHS. He had a patient that he worried would suffer kidney failure from severe dehydration.
“But that doesn’t happen from one day of vomiting. That happens after significant, significant vomiting,” the doctor said. “But I had this patient with CHS who had a day or so of vomiting and had acute renal failure.”
He knew that nausea and ongoing vomiting, coupled with the inability to drink water and keep it down were present in CHS patients, Habboushe thought there must be another factor contributing to these kidney issues. It turned out that the hot showers his patients were using for relief of their symptoms were causing the kidney issues.
“A lot of CHS patients are taking showers in very hot temperatures — hotter than hot tubs, which you aren’t supposed to be in for more than 20 or 30 minutes,” he said. “They were taking these hot showers for hours on end.”
Garnering even more attention was the doctor’s second study on CHS. Reviewing emergency department records, Habboushe found that only about a third of those smoking marijuana at least 20 times per month were suffering the symptoms of CHS. People like those included in this story.
From those number, Habboushe determined that more than 2.75 million Americans probably suffer from CHS. It is a number that is likely to increase as laws criminalizing marijuana laws become a thing of the past.
“Folks would call CHS rare in the medical literature, and I hated that,” Habboushe said. “I’m a scientist and you shouldn’t use a word if you don’t have evidence to back it up. They called it rare, but it wasn’t rare. We doctors were just rarely noticing what it was, and that was our bad.”
Though ED doctors are becoming more familiar with CHS, Habboushe believes there is a lot more work to be done in educating medical providers about the disease. It is lesser known, he said, because primary care doctors haven’t made the effort to become educated about it.
Habboushe is convinced that the lack of knowledge about CHS, its symptoms, and its only valid treatment — an immediate end of marijuana use — will ultimately lead to increased health care costs. The average cost nationwide for colonoscopies and endoscopies those in this story were subjected to is $3,025. Multiply that by 2.75 million.
As CHS becomes more commonly known and better understood, though, Habboushe said those costs may be reduced.
“Now that we know CHS better,” he said, “I think we can start to avoid those costs and those workups.”
Though Habboushe declined to express an opinion on the legalization of marijuana, he believes people on both sides of that argument should agree that CHS needs to be studied more carefully. He said that knowing there is a part of the pot lobby that wants to deflect blame from marijuana itself onto the chemical treatments they claim are applied to illegal marijuana crops by the government.
“One commonality on both sides of the argument — folks who want to legalize and those completely against it — is that they’re not arguing that we should study things,” he said. “We should study these things. We shouldn’t be shy to study it. All of us should agree that science should be involved.”
The doctors said that for those who smoke marijuana on a near-daily basis and who are experiencing nausea, vomiting, and suicidal thoughts they did not have before, the answer is simple.
“If you consume cannabis and hot showers help, the next thing should be cessation. It’s not easy, and patients may need support to stop, but quitting is the answer.”
Mike Nichols is a Licensed Professional Counselor specializing in trauma, Post-Traumatic Stress and Substance Use Disorder. He has a regular blog at America’s Conservative Voice on Substack and a Facebook presence at Americas Conservative Voice-Facebook.