The truth about that ‘first ever marijuana overdose death’

Photo by Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Health | 12.28.2021

The truth about that ‘first ever marijuana overdose death’

Sensationalized coverage of a child’s sudden death resulted in massive misinformation about an alleged “fatal marijuana overdose”.

Remember last month when what was supposedly the world’s “first marijuana overdose” took place? Sensationalistic media stories and public panic notwithstanding, it seems that a couple of poison control doctors had their quotes taken out of context. When media outlets started reporting on the “first marijuana overdose” of an 11-month-old as if it had actually taken place, lots of folks didn’t know any better to believe them.

The infant in question died in 2015 after he was admitted to a hospital in Colorado. He was unresponsive, with no gag reflex, following a seizure. The baby had been “irritable” and “lethargic” in the days before, and after the seizure eventually went into a cardiac arrest.

After a predictable controversy arose — after all, why would cannabis have waited at least 12,000 years to kill someone? — the doctors involved stepped up to clarify that they never said a child overdosed on marijuana.

Both doctors who worked on the case report in question, Thomas M. Nappe, DO, and Christopher O. Hoyte, MD, work at the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center in Denver.

According to the first two lines of their report, “since marijuana legalization, pediatric exposures to cannabis have increased. To date, pediatric deaths from cannabis exposure have not been reported.”

The truth about that ‘first ever marijuana overdose death’

COLORADO SPRINGS, CO. – August 05: Janéa Cox director of the Flowering H.O.P.E. Foundation, with her daughter Haleigh’s, who was diagnosed with Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, looks at the plants that make Haleigh’s Hope, a cannabis oil high in cannabidiol, or CBD, that is helping control her seizures. August 05, 2014 Colorado Springs (Photo By Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Now, to a careful reader, you’d think that would be enough to establish that kids have ever died from weed. But a little bit of ambiguous language a little later in the report is what created the confusion:

“As of this writing, this is the first pediatric death associated with cannabis exposure.”

All the breathless, downright misleading headlines associated with that story appear to have had their genesis in that unfortunate line. But the key word is “associated.” To a medical doctor, that doesn’t mean “caused.” It just means that when the child died, due to myocarditis, mind you, not cannabis, there was marijuana in his system.

There’s absolutely no evidence that one had anything at all to do with the other, or, beyond that, that an “overdose” ever occurred.

“The only thing that we found was marijuana. High concentrations of marijuana in his blood. And that’s the only thing we found (out of the ordinary),” Dr. Hoyte said.

The official cause of death was declared to be due to heart muscle damage.

“We are not saying marijuana killed that child”

“We are absolutely not saying that marijuana killed that child,” Dr. Nappe, who is director of medical toxicology at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania’s St. Luke’s University Health Network, told The Washington Post.

Due to the confusing choice of words in the report, people (and journalists) took things way out of context.

According to Dr. Nappe, he and Dr. Hoyte were simply making observations as they struggled to make sense of the case. He said they were looking into a “possible” connection between cannabis exposure and the child’s death.

Hoyte also addressed the stories in a tweet:

“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”

Even the DEA admits no marijuana overdoses have ever occurred.

Even the DEA admits no marijuana overdoses have ever occurred.

Photo by BSIP/UIG/Getty Images

Even the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, have to admit that marijuana has never caused a fatal overdose. Since both doctors involved in the case say that’s not what happened here, that’s the way it will stay.

The doctors’ state reports Vice,  that “there exists a plausible relationship” between marijuana and the child’s death that “justifies further research.” But “plausible relationships,” of course, doesn’t even come close to meaning causation.

Dr. William Checkley, an associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University, said that the Colorado doctors need to decisively demonstrate any link between myocarditis and marijuana. It’s possible that the two were unrelated in this case, Checkley said.

“There has to be more information to show that this link is real,” Dr. Checkley said.

Paul Armentano, deputy director at NORML, agreed.

“Any purported link between cannabinoid ingestion and myocarditis is, at this point, both premature and speculative,”

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