I'd just spent six hours at a car dealership trying to look savvy when I read the news that a pair of Colorado doctors had witnessed the first case of fatal cannabis overdose. I did the knee-jerk—my least favorite dance move—and immediately called bullshit. The rationalizations came later, but that first reaction might have been due to all of the powdered donuts and tar-crusted coffee I'd been hammering at over negotiations. “Liars!” I said. “Finks!”
A case report was published last March in the journal of Clinical Practice and Cases in Emergency Medicine—co-authored by a pair of doctors at the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center—which detailed the death of an 11-month-old baby 2 years ago due to myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle). The doctors working on the case reportedly found a large concentration of THC in the child's urine and blood, leading some to proclaim it a “marijuana overdose.”
According to the report, the child had been living in an “unstable motel-living situation,” and the parents had admitted to keeping drugs, including cannabis, in the house. Myocarditis—the actual cause of the child's death—can be caused by a viral infection, immune disorder or a number of other complications. “We extensively ruled out almost every other cause that we can think of,” Dr. Christopher Hoyte, co-author of the report told news crews. “We found no other reason why this young kid ended up having inflammation on his heart.”
Even after my initial knee-jumping reaction, I still had trouble believing this news, because I knew the theorized lethal dose of cannabis for humans is ridiculously high. The Schaffer Library of Drug Policy says: “According to which US Government authority you want to believe, the lethal dose of marijuana is either about one-third your body weight, or about 1,500 pounds, consumed all at once.” The University of Michigan's Mind the Science Gap blog says the LD50—lethal dose for half of the population—of delta 9-THC (the chemical that converts to THC when burned) is theoretically between 15 and 70 grams. These numbers are based on the LD50 of the delta 9-THC for rats, mice and monkeys. For obvious reasons, no human trials have ever been conducted, but here was an actual case study that seemed to dispute my long-held belief that it's impossible to overdose on cannabis.
Luckily, my paradigm hadn't completely shifted before both authors of the report came forward to blast the apparent click-baiting sensationalism of the earliest news reports.
“We are absolutely not saying that marijuana killed that child,” Dr. Thomas Nappe—director of medical toxicology at St. Luke’s University Health Network in Bethlehem, Pa., and second co-author of the report—told the Washington Post. Dr. Hoyte took to Twitter to say: “News story totally sensationalized. Kid had myocarditis after marijuana exposure. We just said more study is needed. Not that marijuana was the cause of the death. News story totally overblown.”
The study does advise physicians to counsel parents on preventing the exposure of children to cannabis and suggests that further study into the links between THC and unexplained pediatric myocarditis should be conducted. But if one actually reads the report, they will find that the high concentration of THC in the baby's body was observed and documented, but was never posited as the cause of death.
The confusion seems to stem from the report's statement that “this is the first reported pediatric death associated with cannabis exposure.” There is a difference between “associated with” and “caused by,” a point that Nappe made when speaking to the Post.
Which comes as a relief to any cannabis patient. But what's even more of a relief was the response of the American media. Within days of the initial news stories covering the supposed “overdose,” major pieces debunking the claim were released by the New York Daily News, Ars Technica, VICE News and the aforementioned Washington Post. If you start feeling hot anger creep up your clenched back when you realize that some asshole in a Colorado newsroom just tried to shit in the public milkshake of information just to get a few clicks, think about all the other, bigger outlets who took the high road and stayed off the crazy wagon.
The times, they are a-changin'.
The bad news: You're probably going to have to fend off your misled friends for the next few months when they approach you with the terrible news. “Facebook just told me cannabis killed some kid,” they might say. “I'm totes worried about you, homie.” How you handle the situation is up to you. I guess you could always shame them for not reading their sources more thoroughly, but I would suggest we all take the high road and just explain the facts patiently with special attention given to detail.
The Drug Enforcement Agency continues to maintain that there have been no reported instances of cannabis-caused deaths.