As marijuana reform spreads like wildfire, a common refrain is repeated by cannabis advocates the world over: weed, unlike other drugs, doesn’t kill.
But now a small group of scientists are pointing to new, if dubious, evidence and claiming it proves pot can in fact be deadly. Their claims are sure to find their way into the rhetoric of legalization opponents.
It’s a well-accepted fact in the medical world that pot doesn’t kill. There is probably a lethal dose, but experts believe one would have to consume obscene amounts of the drug to die – far more than the body could tolerate before passing out or becoming too sick to consume more.
It’s relatively easy to overdose on booze: If a person drinks enough to get moderately drunk, then drinks another 10 times that amount, he or she could experience alcohol poisoning and die. If a person smokes enough weed to get a little high, on the other hand, he or she would have to smoke 1,000 times that amount to die.
Those are just rough estimates based on presumptions about the toxicity of THC. Nobody knows for sure just how toxic the drug is because no one has recorded a death caused by it – until this year.
First, a coroner in the United Kingdom claimed a woman who went to bed after smoking half a joint died of marijuana poisoning. Almost no one accepted his findings, especially since there was no other history of drug abuse.
Now, scientists in Germany say they’ve discovered two people who were killed by marijuana alone. The problem: The people they’ve identified probably suffered underlying health conditions that were ultimately responsible for their deaths. The weed contributed, in other words, but it wasn’t the real cause of death.
Cannabis combined with other drugs can kill. It can also contribute to death by aggravating health problems, especially heart conditions.
“It would be very, very, very unlikely to get a lethal dose of the marijuana if it wasn’t adulterated with something,” Dr. Bradley Flansbaum, a hospitalist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, said in February.
The German researchers published their findings in the journal Forensic Science International in February. They studied 15 men whose deaths involved marijuana and performed a range of tests, including autopsies, toxicology exams, genetic tests and histological analyses of all organs.
The scientists concluded two of the men died directly from their marijuana use. Based on the amount of THC in their blood, each had smoked weed within hours of dying. The primary cause of death was cardiac arrhythmia.
“To our knowledge, these are the first cases of suspected fatal cannabis intoxications where full post-mortem investigations . . . were carried out,” the researchers said.
What they and the news items about their findings fail to make clear, however, is that both men suffered other problems that may have contributed to their deaths. The first had a serious undetected heart condition, while the second had a history of abusing alcohol, cocaine and amphetamines.
The scientists didn’t indicate what role these factors might have played in the deaths, but experts have long said it’s possible for marijuana to combine fatally with underlying conditions. A heart condition could be aggravated by marijuana use, and abuse of other drugs could cause permanent heart damage predisposing one to arrhythmia.