Marijuana Overdose Death Reports Completely Jumped The Gun

By Britni de la Cretaz 11/21/17

A recent case report about a "pediatric death associated with cannabis exposure" led to some headline-making reefer madness.

hand holding a lit marijuana joint

A recent report about the death of an 11-month-old child has resulted in sensationalized headlines and inaccurate conclusions about the cause of death.

“Is an 11-month-old the first person to die from a marijuana overdose?” asked the Miami Herald. “Colorado doctors claim baby boy is first marijuana overdose death,” said USA Today.

But the authors of the report are now saying that people made major leaps to come to the conclusion that the baby died of a marijuana overdose. “We are absolutely not saying that marijuana killed that child,” Thomas Nappe, an author of the report who is now the director of medical toxicology at St. Luke’s University Health Network in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, told The Washington Post.

The report reads, "As of this writing, this is the first reported pediatric death associated with cannabis exposure.” But Nappe clarified to the Post that the word “associated” should not be interpreted as establishing a causal relationship between the two.

The report in question is not a scientific study, nor is it official research, both of which can sometimes be used to determine cause-and-effect relationships. Rather, it is a case report in the journal Clinical Practice and Cases in Emergency Medicine.

In the report, the authors wonder if—because the child tested positive for high levels of THC at autopsy—the marijuana exposure could have contributed to the myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart, that caused his death. There have previously been reports of cannabis-associated myocarditis.

Nappe, who co-authored the report with Christopher Hoyte, explained to the Post that what the doctors observed was a collection of events they felt were worth documenting, and which needed to be examined further before any concrete conclusion could be drawn.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) states that, "No death from overdose of marijuana has been reported." As the Huffington Post points out, a death from marijuana toxicity would be incredible, as reports have found that someone would have to ingest between 20,000 to 40,000 times the amount of THC contained in one joint to reach lethality.

“I’m not convinced, I have to be honest,” Dr. Bruce Goldberger, chief of forensic medicine at the University of Florida, told HuffPost. “Marijuana is a drug that’s impairing, but not one that’s known to cause issues like those described in the paper.”

Similarly, addiction treatment researcher Keith Humphreys told the Post, “It would not be correct to go from this to a generalized panic about the lethality of cannabis. It’s just not there.”

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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, baseball enthusiast, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.