A Louisiana coroner reports that a 39-year-old woman who died in February on her couch in the town of LaPlace could have suffered a marijuana overdose. Though there is some cause for skepticism over the finding, its accuracy would make hers the first reported case of death caused by marijuana in the world.
“At high levels, marijuana can cause respiratory depression, which means a decrease in breathing,” St. John the Baptist coroner Christy Montegut told a local CBS affiliate. “And if it’s a high enough level it can make you stop breathing.”
His announcement that the woman died from marijuana is startling because it is generally seen as one of the world’s safest recreational drugs. A 2017 study by the Global Drug Survey found that 0.6 percent of cannabis users reported having gone to the emergency room due to its use. For comparison, 1.3 percent of alcohol users had gone to the ER.
Officials learned from the woman’s boyfriend that she had gone to the emergency room for treatment of a chest infection three weeks prior to her death, and that she was a regular vaper. Montegut seemed to imply that these two facts could have interacted to cause the woman’s death. She was found to have 8.4 nanograms of THC per milliliter in her blood at her time of death.
The La Place resident’s case presented several challenges to investigators hoping to determine her cause of death. Her organs, including lungs, were found to be reasonably healthy, leading officials to expect the death to be due to alcohol poisoning. But autopsy reports show that it wasn’t alcohol, but THC that was present in the woman’s blood at elevated levels.
“I’m 100 percent sure of the readings we’ve found,” said Montegut. “I definitely did some research before I came to the conclusion that this was the cause of death.”
The coroner’s words come on the heels one those of Surgeon General Jerome Adams during a TV appearance Wednesday. On the show, Adams likened high potency THC products to alcohol “I like to have a glass of wine every once in a while,” said the Trump appointee. “But that doesn’t mean I endorse going out and drinking a pint of grain alcohol.” Some critics found the remark misleading, as alcohol use is generally accepted to be much more fatal than that of cannabis.
But studies find that cannabis users in the emergency room may not necessarily be experiencing the kind of depressed rates of breathing the coroner suggests killed the woman. A 2017 study on the causes of cannabis-related ER visits found that the top causes were ingestion by kids, acute intoxication (which can result in somnolence, loss of consciousness, or vomiting), or cannabis hypremesis (another mysterious condition that can cause nausea, vomiting, or abdominal pain.) Another relatively common cannabis-related reason for an ER trip were burns stemming from use of butane used in the production of hash oil, dabs, and wax.
Anecdotally, some doctors say that anxiety is the top cause of marijuana-related trips to the emergency room — a health condition that can cause heart palpitations or faster heart rate, but that is unlikely to kill a person.
What is above doubt is that the ways in which we are consume cannabis are evolving rapidly. Vaporizer use, in particular, is increasing among teens and adults. Scientific findings must continue to be updated and expanded when it comes to different health effects of new marijuana technologies and products.