Is it possible to die from too much THC?
Many pro-cannabis advocates use the argument of a positive safety profile to fight against prohibition. It’s true that cannabis has an extremely good safety record, and for the past 5000 years. Furthermore, science has verified that the amount of cannabis needed to result in a THC overdose is physiologically impossible to consume (1500 pounds in 15 minutes).
But, according to news reports, a 39-year-old woman from Louisiana has allegedly died of a THC overdose. The victim was found deceased on the couch in her apartment. Did this really happen due to cannabis?
First – The Science of How Cannabis Works in the Body
The endocannabinoid system is comprised of a number of receptors throughout the body. These are responsible for maintaining internal homeostasis. Consuming cannabis delivers cannabinoids, such as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), that mimic naturally-made endocannabinoids. The two most well-researched cannabinoids are THC and CBD. THC is the cannabinoid that causes that intoxicating feeling, but it also has important medicinal properties that go well beyond its recreational reputation. Patients consume CBD primarily for its anti-inflammatory and painkilling properties. Both of these, along with the hundreds of other cannabinoids in cannabis, interact with the endocannabinoid system to maintain good health.
Can People Really Die from Cannabis in Their System?
Sure, in the sense that someone can die from consuming ice cream and heroin. If someone consumes too much ice cream and heroin, then suffers from a heart attack, did they die of heroin use or ice cream? This example portrays the crucial question many news reports aren’t discussing – did this woman have a pre-existing condition that contributed to her death?
It is reported that the Louisiana woman had been to Emergency three weeks prior to her death due to chest pains. She was released after receiving a clean bill of health. Other news outlets report this as a chest infection.
Dr Montegut is the coroner that determined the cause of death. Despite backlash from the cannabis and scientific communities, the New Orleans Advocate reports that he is sticking to his assessment: “It looked like it was all THC because her autopsy showed no physical disease or afflictions that were the cause of death.
“There was nothing else identified in the toxicology — no other drugs, no alcohol. There was nothing else.”
According to a 1988 ruling from the US Drug Enforcement Agency, 40,000 times the normal amount would need to be smoked to cause death. This is the same as smoking 30,000 joints in one sitting, with nearly 1 gram of cannabis in each.
Cannabis does not directly cause death. Yes, there have been cases where people have died with cannabis in their system, but this doesn’t mean that cannabis is the cause, or even a contributing factor. While drugs, such as opioids and alcohol, can literally shut down breathing and circulatory systems. Cannabis will not do this.
But, Cannabis is More Potent These Days
Dr. Noah Kaufman, an emergency room doctor in Colorado believes that because THC is becoming more concentrated, ‘we’re playing with fire’. It is expected that more people will have adverse reactions to cannabis due to potency changes.
While it’s true that cannabis is getting more potent, there is no conclusive evidence showing that an increase in potency causes death. The increase in the concentrations of THC today’s cannabis should be more of a concern for side effects of such as anxiety, and paranoia, not death.
How Did This Woman Die Then?
When people overdose on narcotics, such as Oxycontin or heroin, there is a process which occurs in the body that is fatal. Oxford University anesthesiology, professor K.T.S. Pattinson, explains that in people who are addicted to these drugs, respiratory depression is the primary cause of death. This means that when one consumes too many opioids, the body’s respiratory and circulatory system can shut down. A victim can fall unconscious and death will soon follow.
There is a part of the brain responsible for instructing the body to breath, called the pre-Bötzinger complex. This happens unconsciously. Opioids are well known to induce feelings of euphoria, decrease pain, but whilst doing so they also decrease the activity of the pre-Bötzinger complex. Consuming too many opioids leads to death because of this depression of the pre-Bötzinger complex.
Claiming that the woman died from THC shutting down respiration is not physiologically possible. Increased anxiety, however, can lead to panic attacks and an elevated heart rate. Is it possible that the woman really did have a heart condition that her body warned her about three weeks prior? Then she consumed highly potent cannabis, had an anxiety attacked, followed by heart attack? That seems more in the realm of possibility IF she had a heart problem.
Cannabis Brings Euphoria, so Why Can’t it Stop Breathing Too?
Cannabinoids act on receptors in the brain that are not in the brainstem. The brainstem is where control over primary functions, such as breathing and heart rate, occurs. This isn’t to say cannabis won’t increase your heart rate or change your pattern of breathing, as it can, but this will occur through different mechanisms.
The basal ganglia, the hippocampus, and cerebellum have the highest concentration of cannabinoid receptors. These regions of the brain support cognitive function and movement. Although cannabinoid receptors are present in areas such as the pre-botzinger complex, the concentration simply isn’t enough to have any dominion over its function when THC consumption is increased substantially.
The coroner, Christy Montegut, claims that, “At high levels, [cannabis] can cause respiratory depression, which means a decrease in breathing, and if it’s a high enough level it can make you stop breathing.”
It’s also important to note that every expert who has reviewed the case disagrees wholeheartedly that THC killed the woman. They believe, based on the evidence available regarding cannabis’s safety, that THC overdose is impossible.
Are There Bad Effects From Consuming Cannabis?
Cannabis involves minimal risk as it is a safe medicine. Prolonged, heavy smoking of cannabis, however, may harm lung health. Although cannabis isn’t as bad as smoking cigarettes, inhaling any type of smoke is not healthy. Smoking cannabis can lead to bronchitis, lung infections and chronic cough. There are different risks to vaping, including potential exposure to heavy metals and cartridge ingredients that may harm delicate lung tissue.
Although cannabis isn’t addictive in the same sense as cocaine or heroin, psychological dependence can still occur. This may also lead to the provoking the symptoms of underlying mental health conditions.
While consuming too much cannabis is a legitimate problem for some, death is not one these.