Potential for Abuse: Emergency Room Admissions

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Data on both drug treatment and emergency room admissions also distinguish the abuse potential of marijuana from that of other drugs, and establishes its relative abuse potential as lower than Schedule I drugs such as heroin and Schedule II drugs such as cocaine.

According to the Treatment Episodes Data Set, nearly 54% of all marijuana treatment admissions are referred to by the criminal justice system, compared to much smaller percentages for heroin and cocaine. The abuse potential of the more dangerous drugs is so severe that addicts seek treatment on their own or through persuasion from the people they have contact with. Furthermore, marijuana treatment admissions are much more likely to receive ambulatory drug treatment such as outpatient care than opiate or cocaine admissions, another indication that marijuana has a lower potential for abuse (see table 3)

The relative abuse potential of drugs can also be evaluated by comparing the likelihood of the respective user populations to be admitted to emergency rooms as a result of their drug use. According to the 1998 National Household Survey, there were 18.7 million annual marijuana users, 3.8 million annual cocaine users, and 253,000 annual heroin users. According to 1998 data from the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN), based on reports from participating hospital emergency rooms, there were 76,870 emergency room mentions for marijuana, 172,014 mentions of cocaine, and 77,645 mentions of heroin/morphine. Incorporating both sets of data indicates that rates of emergency room mentions per 100,000 users is 411 for marijuana, 4,514 for cocaine, and 30,690 for heroin. The table demonstrates that users of marijuana in the U.S. are much less likely to be admitted to emergency rooms than those of cocaine and heroin.

Table 3.          Selected Drug Use Statistics – 1998


 Estimated Annual Users (1)

 Emergency Room (ER) Mentions (2)

  ER Mentions/

100,000 users

Percent of Treatment Admissions Referred by Criminal Justice System (3)

Percent of Treatment Admissions Receiving Ambulatory Care (3)











11.1% – 17.0%






25.7% – 29.3%

52.2% – 57.1%

Thus, national survey data provide additional evidence that marijuana does not have a high potential for abuse relative to other controlled substances.


Rouse BA. Epidemiology of illicit and abused drugs in the general population, emergency department drug-related episodes, and arrestees. Clin Chem 1996 Aug;42(8 Pt 2):1330-6