The Unpredictable and Dangerous Side of Marijuana Edibles

By Paul Gaita 08/06/15

Deaths linked to edible marijuana underscore the misinformation surrounding its contents and effects.

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A report from the Centers for Disease Control has underscored the potential health hazards involved with edible marijuana projects, which may cause serious physical side effects and have been attributed to at least one death.

The report, issued on July 24, 2015, examines the March 2014 death of 19-year-old exchange student Levy Thamba, who leapt to his death from a four-story hotel building in Denver, Colo., after consuming a marijuana cookie purchased legally from a local store.

According to statements given by friends of Thamba who were present at the time of the incident, he was instructed to consume a small portion of the cookie, which contained 10 mg of THC.

Thirty to 60 minutes later, Thamba reported that he was not feeling any effects from the cookie’s contents, consumed the remainder of the item, which contained an additional 50 mg of THC. He then began exhibiting signs of intoxication, including erratic speech and irregular behavior, over the next two hours before becoming agitated and then running off a hotel balcony, which led to his death.

An autopsy performed 29 hours after his death found that marijuana intoxication was the chief contributing factor in Thamba’s demise; his whole THC blood level was 7.2 ng/ml, and no other intoxicants were found in his system. The legal limit for operating a vehicle in Colorado is 5.0 ng/ml. Thamba had never used marijuana in any form prior to the March 2014 incident.

Thamba’s death was the first reported death in Colorado linked to marijuana since the state legalized the substance for recreational use in 2014. It also underscores the lack of existing information regarding the effects and contents of edible marijuana on users.

“We haven’t fully explored the symptoms of edible marijuana,” said Dr. Scott Bentz, medical director of emergency services at Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center in Denver. “It’s not typical for marijuana to affect impulse control, but the research is mostly on smoked marijuana, not eaten.”

When consumed and absorbed through the stomach and intestines, THC can take up to two hours to produce its euphoric feeling for the user, leading many to consume more than the recommended amount in a short period of time. In doing so, they may be consuming 100 mg of THC in a single sitting—the current legal limit set by the state for edible products—which can produce an array of reactions, from anxiety and agitation, like that experienced by Thamba, to extreme sedation.

However, numerous reports have surfaced that the amount of THC reported on edible packaging may differ greatly from the actual amount infused into the item, which can also produce drastically varied effects in users. The CDC’s report suggests that “improved public health messaging” may help to reduce incidents of overuse, and lawmakers in Colorado are expected to introduce a bill that will place restrictions on the potency of edible marijuana products.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.