Did a Louisiana Woman Actually Die from a Cannabis Overdose?

A Louisiana coroner recently claimed that a 38-year-old woman is the first ever person to have died from a marijuana overdose, but experts aren't so sure.

Last week St. John the Baptist Parish Coroner Christy Montegut said he had recorded the first death caused by a person ingesting an excessive amount of THC, the primary intoxicating compound found in cannabis. Montegut reported that he could not determine anything else that might have resulted in the death of the Louisiana woman.

"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," Montegut told The New Orleans Advocate. "There was nothing else."

Montegut said he believed the deceased experienced "respiratory failure" after she "vaped this THC oil."

Despite Montegut's bold statement, drug experts aren't so sure cannabis really is to blame for the woman's death. The coroner's toxicology report showed that the woman had a THC concentration of 8.4 nanograms per milliliter of blood. That would be enough to intoxicate somebody, but not nearly enough to kill them, according to Bernard Le Foll - an addictions researcher from the University of Toronto.

"That number is not very high," Le Foll said

In fact, Le Foll estimated that in it could take as much as 1,000 times that amount of THC to be lethal. Getting that much THC in your system could mean smoking as much as 20,000 joints by some estimates, an amount that by all means would likely be impossible for most people to consume quickly enough.

Moreover, if THC could be deadly at small amounts, we would probably have discovered that by now, according to Keith Humphreys - a former senior policy advisor for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

"We know from really good survey data that Americans use cannabis products billions of times a year, collectively. Not millions of times, but billions of times a year," said Humphreys. "So, that means that if the risk of death was one in a million, we would have a couple thousand cannabis overdose deaths a year."

Still, Montegut is leaning on the recent case as a prime example for why lawmakers in Louisiana should consider opposing efforts to legalize recreational cannabis in the state.

But Humphreys says there is no reason for lawmakers to take this as a valid argument against legalization. Even in the unlikely case that this woman did die from THC exposure, said Humphreys, it would still make the event so statistically insignificant as to essentially be a non-issue.

"Let's assume [that the woman died from THC] is a fact," he said. "What do you conclude from that? It doesn't justify really anything from a policy viewpoint. It's just so incredibly unlikely."

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