Unfounded Pot Hysteria Spreads on the Internet

Headlines declaring the "first marijuana overdose" are sensational and misleading.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Yarygin

A local Colorado NBC-affiliated news station recently ran a misleading story with the headline, “Colorado doctors claim first marijuana overdose death.” In reality, experts have drawn no scientific link or otherwise solid correlation between cannabis and the death in question.

The story is based on a recent case report on the death of an 11-month-old who experienced a seizure and myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart muscle. While the baby was exposed to cannabis prior to death, and had "cannabis toxicity," according to the case study, there is no further connection—no cause-and-effect scenario—to speak of. The researchers said they found no other cause for the death, and recommend further investigation.

Noah Kaufman, a Northern Colorado emergency room physician, told the Washington Post that the claims of death due to marijuana overdose are "not based on reality. It’s based on somebody kind of jumping the gun and making a conclusion, and scientifically you can’t do that.”

The Washington Postreports that Thomas Nappe, the co-author of the case study, said, “We are absolutely not saying that marijuana killed that child.” Nappe is the director of medical toxicology at St. Luke’s University Health Network in Bethlehem, Pa. As the Post notes in a recent story about the case study in question, “[Nappe] explained that the doctors simply observed this unusual sequence of events, documented it and alerted the medical community that it is worth studying a possible relationship between cannabis and the child’s cause of death.”

The Post also notes that the observation was not part of a scientific study or research report, but a case study, which is not enough evidence to establish a causal relationship.

The case study report states that the baby’s parents admitted to drug possession and lived in an “unstable motel-living situation.” The baby’s death occurred following exposure to cannabis, though thus far there is no direct evidence to link the baby’s death to ingesting cannabis.

Experts and lawmakers agree that every possible effort should be made to avoid childhood exposure to cannabis and that cannabis should be kept out of reach of children (unless they are prescribed it for medical reasons).

If further investigation reveal the baby's heart failure stemmed from cannabis ingestion, it would be a one-off incident, and “very unusual” as Keith Humphreys, a Stanford University psychiatry professor who served as a senior policy adviser at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy during the Obama administration, said to the Washington Post.

According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, there has never been an overdose death from cannabis. One researcher found that in order to fatally overdose on cannabis, an adult would have to consume 1,500 pounds of it in 15 minutes—an amount that is physically impossible, as author David Schmader notes in his book "Weed: The User's Guide").  

Several other news channels have picked up the story, erroneously calling it the “first marijuana overdose.” 

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April M. Short is a freelance writer who focuses on health, wellness and social justice. She previously worked as AlterNet's drugs and health editor.