When we hear about the dangers of drugs, the biggest concern in regards to use is the threat of overdose. And, of course, for certain drugs this concern is quite valid: per the Center for Disease Control, 13,000 people died from heroin overdoses in 2015 and 91 people continue to die each day from opioid overdoses (of both illegal drugs and prescription drugs).
Yet cannabis is a different ballgame. Whether or not someone can die from smoking or ingesting too much pot has occasionally been painted as controversial when, in fact, it isn’t. Just because the strain is called Green Crack, doesn’t mean you can overdose on it.
Overdose – What it Means
The term “overdose” has different meanings for different people. Sometimes it’s synonymous with death – saying you can’t “overdose” on something means you can’t die from taking large quantities of it. But, in technical terms, an “overdose” merely means you’ve taken more than the medical or recommended dosage. And that can happen with all sorts of substances.
Look at caffeine, for instance: from Monster Energy drinks to the time you had to study for a history final in college after not going to class for two months, odds are you’ve overdosed on caffeine at some point in your life. You might have experienced increase thirst, dizziness, tremors, or diarrhea as a result.
There are reports of people dying from caffeine overdose too, but these are rare. They usually involve someone with an underlying cardiac condition, someone ingesting extraordinary amounts of caffeine (via things like caffeine powder), or someone taking a medicine that compounds the effects of caffeine (the antidepressant Luvox, for example, drastically slows down the metabolism of caffeinated substances).
But, what about marijuana? Can other factors lead to death from a cannabis overdose? Even the government admits that the answer is no.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the ability to overdose and die from marijuana isn’t “very likely.”
Thus, while overdosing in the literal sense isn’t a concern, how a person reacts to extreme amounts is where the worry lies. In Colorado, there have been a few reports of deaths where weed was believed to be a factor rather than a direct cause. There are a handful of tragic stories of young men who killed themselves after consuming large amounts of edibles.
Why Cannabis Overdosing Isn’t a Thing
Speaking in terms of actual cannabis overdose, the reason for its impossibility is simple: you just can’t consume enough THC to shut down your organs unless you are a rodent. Per the Schaffer Library of Drug Policy, one study conducted showed that huge amounts of THC were unable to produce death or organ pathology in large mammals. In small rodents, death occurred as a result of central nervous system depression.
The amounts of THC administered in this experiment were enormous – the equivalent of a 154-pound person consuming 46 pounds of cannabis in a single sitting.
In other words, a person would have to smoke 250,000 times the usual dosage to reach the amount used in the study. And, even then, the dosage, assuming the study’s accuracy, would be nonfatal
The researchers concluded that the ratio of lethal dose to effective dose is “quite large” (also this is “quite” an understatement) and much, much larger than other commonly used psychoactive agents like alcohol or barbiturates.
The Drug Enforcement Agency agrees with this too and has for decades: in 1988, they issued a ruling that the average marijuana smoker would need to consume 20,000 to 40,000 times the amount of THC in a joint to risk dying.
The United Kingdom Case
In 2014, a woman by the name of Gemma Moss – a pot smoker for years – died after smoking half of a joint to help her sleep. The autopsy showed no cause of death, leaving the coroner to conclude that she died of cardiac arrest triggered by “moderate to high” levels of cannabis in her system.
The doctor in charge admitted that cannabis has a very low level of toxicity, but also cited reports of it inducing cardiac arrhythmias. According to the UK Mirror, coroner Sheriff Payne was quoted as saying, “The postmortem could find no natural cause for her death. With the balance of probability that it is more likely than not she died from the effects of cannabis.” But this was met by disagreement from some and ridicule from others.
Dr. Allen Shackelford, a medical marijuana doctor in Colorado, questioned the diagnosis telling the Denver Post, “There’s been no history of any verified reports of death from cannabis ever. Cannabis can cause an increased heart rate and there’s a possibility that it could cause a problem with someone with a pre-existing heart disease – somebody with an elevated heart rate. But there’s no known dose of cannabis that could kill a human.”
Certainly, one could argue that all sorts of beneficial things increase the heart rate – coffee, spicy foods, sex, and, mostly, exercise.
Per the HuffPost UK, Peter Reynolds, the head of UK’s Cannabis Law Reform, argued that the coroner’s conclusion didn’t support science. He was quoted as saying, “There must have been another factor involved and there isn’t any evidence that cannabis was the causative factor. Tragically, spontaneous cardiac arrest does occur in apparently healthy people. Cannabis is the least toxic therapeutically active substance known to man.”
Backing his statement is the fact that inconclusive autopsies aren’t unheard of: George Michael’s just came back as such. Doctors backed him as well; those interviewed by the New York Daily News were quoted as saying everything from “(Dying) from half a joint? That’s ridiculous” to
It would be very, very, very unlikely to get a lethal dose of marijuana if it wasn’t adulterated with something.
The latter brings up an important possibility: when people say that cannabis overdose isn’t a thing, they are speaking of cannabis only; if the joint is laced with another drug, that statement’s no longer applicable.
While the UK coroner might have come to his own conclusions, it’s only natural to wonder why – if half a joint was all it took to kill someone – we don’t see many more people dying when they consume higher dosages.
But, to play devil’s advocate, and assume that the deceased fell victim to a perfect storm in which cannabis was a causative factor, there’s still very little for prohibitionists to go on. If marijuana overdose killed one person out of the millions and millions who consume it, this attests more to its safety than its dangers. Besides, aspirin – a drug that no one’s working to make or keep illegal – is far more deadly; according to the BBC, aspirin overdose accounts for 5,000 hospitalizations and sixty deaths in the United Kingdom each year. And then there’s alcohol and cigarettes and red meat and the list goes on and on.