The question of whether marijuana, or cannabis, can kill a person is continuously debated. German scientists have now added to the conversation.
Benno Hartung of University Hospital Düsseldorf in Germany conducted post-mortems on 15 people whose deaths were linked to cannabis use.
They worked to rule out, if possible, other factors of deaths through numerous tests including an autopsy, a toxicology exam, genetic tests and histological analysis of all organs. “It’s a diagnosis of exclusion so you have to rule out all other possibilities,” Hartung told New Scientist.
Two of the 15 deaths were attributed to cannabis intoxication because no other causes were death.
The two deaths were both men–23 and 28 years of age–who died of cardiac arrhythmia, when the heart beats too quickly or slowly, and the scientists believe that THC, the active chemical in marijuana, triggered this.
Neither man had a history of problems that would have led to the arrhythmia. “We did every test we could,” Hartung said.
The younger man collapsed on a bus and marijuana was discovered in his pocket, reported BILD. The older man was discovered dead at the apartment of his girlfriend, next to a plastic bag of marijuana. Both men had THC in the blood. “It is clear that they have smoked cannabis just before her death,” Hartung said.
They published the research in Forensic Science International.
“To our knowledge, these are the first cases of suspected fatal cannabis intoxications where full postmortem investigations, including autopsy, toxicological, histological, immunohistochemical and genetical examinations, were carried out,” the scientists wrote in the study abstract. “The results of these examinations are presented. After exclusion of other causes of death we assume that the young men experienced fatal cardiovascular complications evoked by smoking cannabis”
Cannabis is increasingly viewed as a medicinal choice that helps alleviate pain or a way to relax as a recreational drug, particularly with recent legalization in the U.S. states of Colorado and Washington.
Studies have indicated positive effects of the drug, but Hartung says the new research should prompt others to conduct investigations into death linked to cannabis use.
“Even though it may be rare, I hope others investigate death by cannabis intoxication in other cities, particularly in light of the increased use of cannabis for pain relief,” he said.