Experts Question Coroner Who Claims Woman Died of "THC Overdose"

By Paul Gaita 06/12/19

A toxicology revealed that the apparent overdose victim had 8.4 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood in her system.

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Coroner examining marijuana leaves

A medical examiner in Louisiana has drawn national attention for attributing a 39-year-old woman's death to a THC overdose.

Dr. Christy Montegut, who serves as coroner for St. John the Baptist Parish in LaPlace, Louisiana, stated that the woman was found with elevated levels of THC per milliliter of blood in her system at the time of death. Such high levels, he noted, can cause respiratory depression, and linked the two factors to the woman's death. If Montegut's diagnosis proves correct, it will be the first report of an individual dying solely from marijuana use.

The woman was found dead in her apartment in February 2019. No outwardly obvious causes of death were found on the scene, so investigators ordered an autopsy. The results showed that the woman had "relatively" healthy organs and no signs of illness. Montegut initially suspected alcohol poisoning as the culprit, but was surprised to note that the toxicology report only noted a high level of THC in her system. 

According to Montegut, the report showed that the woman had 8.4 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood in her system, or 15 times the level of THC to register on a toxicology report.

The woman's boyfriend said that she had been admitted to the emergency room three weeks before her death for a chest infection.

After considering these factors, as well as the possibility of respiratory depression caused by high levels of THC, the coroner concluded that marijuana use had caused the woman's death. 

"I'm 100% sure of the readings we've found," said Montegut.

Medical experts and agencies are less confident. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has noted that while it's not impossible that a death may have occurred due to marijuana use, there are no existing reports of anyone dying solely from that cause.

And Keith Humphreys, a former senior policy adviser at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), said that with Americans using "billions" of cannabis products a year, there should be a "couple thousand cannabis overdoses" in that same timeframe, but none appear to have been reported.

"What do you conclude from that?" he asked. "It's just so incredibly unlikely."

High Times also shared a 2017 study that found that the top causes for marijuana-related admission to an emergency room were ingestion by kids, acute intoxication due to loss of consciousness or vomiting, or cannabis hypermesis, which causes nausea and vomiting.  It also noted that anxiety can also be included among the top reasons for admission, though again, it remains an unlikely cause of death.

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

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