It’s a statistic commonly found on the lips of marijuana legalization advocates: No death from a pot overdose has ever been reported, according to the FDA.
But now, doctors think they may have uncovered the first-ever fatality from a marijuana overdose—in an 11-month-old baby. But their conclusions are controversial.
In Colorado, a state which has legalized recreational marijuana use, an 11-month-old baby’s death two years ago was determined to be the first ever documented marijuana death. An 11-month-old Colorado boy is the first person ever to die of a marijuana overdose, according to doctors on his medical team who published their findings in a medical journal.
The boy died two years ago after being hospitalized for a seizure and having heart failure a few days later, the Ledger-Enquirer reported. It was later found that he had high levels of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, in his system.
In a case report titled Pediatric Death Due to Myocarditis After Exposure to Cannabis, Thomas M. Nappe and Christopher O. Hoyte detail the case of an unidentified child who died of an inflamed heart muscle, or “myocarditis.” The two men, based at the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center in Colorado, which legalized cannabis in January 2014, say that THC, the main psychoactive chemical found in pot, was discovered in the baby’s blood and urine.
They go on to describe this chemical as “the only uncovered risk factor… for his myocarditis,” and add that it is likely there because the boy ingested cannabis. The chemical’s presence “is highly unlikely attributable to passive exposure,” the pair write.
An investigation revealed the boy’s parents possessed marijuana and that he likely ingested it at his living quarters in a motel, the Ledger-Enquirer reported.
Marijuana depresses the central nervous system and has caused myocarditis — inflammation of the heart — in several other cases, but those patients, who were older, all recovered. Myocarditis is more often fatal in children, and is usually caused by injections, fungi, or parasites, KUSA reported.
“The only thing that we found was marijuana – high concentrations of marijuana in his blood – and that’s the only thing we found,” told Christopher Hoyte. “The kid never really got better. And just one thing led to another and the kid ended up with a heart stopped. And the kid stopped breathing and died.”
The report states the baby’s official cause of death was a heart attack, but a virus usually responsible for inflammation of the heart in young children was not found in the baby’s system. The report summarises that in this case, the inflammation was likely caused by exposure to cannabis. “Given the existing relationship between cannabis and cardiovascular toxicity… the authors propose a relationship between cannabis exposure in this patient and myocarditis, leading to cardiac arrest and ultimately death.”
The science isn’t settled, however, with other doctors disagreeing with the pair’s conclusion.
“I’m going to have to call ‘BS’ on this one,” Noah Kaufman an emergency medicine specialist
I’m not saying that it’s not. But I think it’s a pretty big leap to say that it is.”
Critics also say there is no definitive link between marijuana and heart inflammation, with prior cases involving other drugs in addition to marijuana. They also note myocarditis often happens with no testable cause.
The authors also admit they don’t know how much marijuana the child ingested or when he ate it.
Drug policy and health experts also warned against making too much of the report. “You just can’t make those statements because then what happens is lay people say ‘Oh my god, did you hear a kid died from marijuana poisoning?’ and it can be sensationalized,” said Dr. Noah Kaufman, a Northern Colorado emergency room physician. “It’s 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.”
Turns out, that’s what happened in previous news reports, much to Nappe’s dismay. Upon hearing that Nappe and Hoyte were not claiming that this child died from marijuana, Kaufman said “that’s more responsible.” Jonathan Caulkins, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College, said that it doesn’t strike him as impossible that the death described in the report could be linked to marijuana.
“Unambiguously, cannabis can accelerate the heart,” said Caulkins, who is not a medical doctor, but studies drug policy and markets. He also agreed that parents should keep marijuana out of reach of their children. Millions of Americans use marijuana regularly, according to the most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health and addiction treatment researcher Keith Humphreys said cannabis consumption has “virtually no risk.”
The Drug Enforcement Administration states that there have been no reported overdose deaths from marijuana.