NOV 20, 2017 3:30 PM PST

Was Marijuana Really Behind Child's Death?

WRITTEN BY: Xuan Pham

Image credit: Pixabay.com

Reports of the “first marijuana overdose death” made a huge splash in the headlines last week. But as sensational as it sounds, doctors on all sides, including the study authors, are now trying to undo the fears and concerns caused by the reporting.

The case was of an 11-month-old boy from Denver, Colorado, who was brought into the emergency room (ER) with seizures. In the ER, the boy’s breathing slowed, and his heart subsequently stopped beating. Attempts to revive him were unsuccessful, and he died after an hour of resuscitation efforts.

Due to his sudden onset of symptoms and death, doctors performed an autopsy, which revealed the cause of death was myocarditis (inflammation of the heart). Furthermore, lab tests revealed an unsettling abnormality: the boy tested positive for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active compound found in cannabis.

“Given two rare occurrences with a clear temporal relationship — the recent exposure to cannabis and the myocarditis-associated cardiac arrest — we believe there exists a plausible relationship that justifies further research into cannabis-associated cardiotoxicity and related practice adjustments,” the medical journal report stated.

In essence, because they could find no other risk factors for the boy’s fatal myocarditis, the reporting doctors suggested the cannabis was the most likely culprit.

However, the nuances of their report, detailing “a possible relationship exists between cannabis exposure in this child and myocarditis leading to death,” was perhaps lost as they claimed to have “the first reported pediatric death associated with cannabis exposure.”

Indeed, the doctors have been heavily criticized for making such a bold link, given the lack of a clear relationship between cannabis and overdosing. Of note, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) maintains that “no death from overdose of marijuana has been reported.”

Faced with criticisms, the reporting doctors have defended their conclusions, citing thorough investigation into other possible causes of death.

“The only thing that we found was marijuana. High concentrations of marijuana in his blood. And that’s the only thing we found,” Dr. Christopher Hoyte said to a news network. “We extensively ruled out almost every other cause that we can think of,” he added. “Myself, our team, plus the primary team taking care of the patient, plus the coroner who did the post-mortem on the child. And we found no other reason why this young kid ended up having inflammation on his heart.”

But it may be too late to take back the sensation factor from their report. “You just can’t make those statements because then what happens is lay people say, ‘Oh my God, did you hear a kid died from marijuana poisoning?’ and it can be sensationalized,” criticized Noah Kaufman, a Northern Colorado emergency room physician, who was not involved in the original report. “It’s not based on reality. It’s based on somebody kind of jumping the gun and making a conclusion, and scientifically you can’t do that.”

Due to the overwhelming backlash, the reporting doctors are trying to blur the link between cannabis overdose and the myocarditis that was seemingly much stronger in their original report.

“We are absolutely not saying that marijuana killed that child,” said Dr. Thomas Nappe, an author of the report.

“All we are saying is we didn’t find any other reasons. So we need to study this further,” added Dr.Hoyte.

Additional sources: Live Science, Washington Times, Washington Post

About the Author
I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at TheGeneTwist.com.
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