Marijuana is one of the most widespread drugs used in America today. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, about 22 million Americans consume marijuana in any given month, and about one in five Americans regularly uses the drug, according to a study from Marist College.
The government considers marijuana dangerous. It depresses the central nervous system and affects the chemistry of the brain - yet there has never been a report of someone actually dying from consuming too much marijuana exclusively.
Now, doctors in Colorado say they have reported the first-ever known pediatric death associated with cannabis exposure - in this case, an 11-month-old baby boy.
The results were published in the journal “Clinical Practice and Cases in Emergency Medicine,” and the research was co-authored by Colorado doctors Thomas Nappe and Christopher Hoyte, who worked on the child’s medical team.
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The 11-month-old male was admitted to the emergency department after having a seizure, according to the study. Over the previous several days, the child was “irritable” and had been retching and lethargic, the child’s guardian told the doctors. They examined the child and looked at his history and found him to be an otherwise perfectly normal and healthy boy.
The boy was unresponsive in the hospital and kept getting worse. The doctors intubated him to keep him breathing after his nervous system began shutting down.
Then his heart stopped. The doctors tried everything - infusions, CPR, various medicines - but it was no use, and he died about one hour later, the report says.
After the boy’s death, the doctors tried to figure out what went wrong. The boy had presented with all the symptoms of a condition called myocarditis, where the heart muscles become inflamed. After looking at his blood, they found what they say is the culprit - evidence of THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
They looked and looked for any other factors that may have caused the child’s condition, but couldn’t find anything, they said.
“The only thing that we found was marijuana. High concentrations of marijuana in his blood. And that’s the only thing we found,” Hoyte told KUSA. “The kid never really got better. And just one thing led to another and the kid ended up with a heart stopped. And the kid stopped breathing and died.”
The doctors wrote that upon reviewing the patient’s history, they discovered “an unstable motel-living situation and parental admission of drug possession, including cannabis.” They pointed to several other cases where patients had experienced myocarditis after smoking marijuana - although all the patients in those cases recovered.
Based on the timing of his symptoms, doctors concluded that the child had consumed a lot of marijuana very quickly, at one time, and didn’t get sick from being exposed to cannabis over time, such as from people smoking around him.
Co-author Thomas Nappe stressed in an interview with The Washington Post that the marijuana was associated with the death but was not indicative of a cause-and-effect relationship. “We are absolutely not saying that marijuana killed that child,” Nappe told the Post.
The authors wrote that urine screening for marijuana may be useful if other patients come in with the same symptoms and doctors can’t find a cause.
“In the age of legalized marijuana, children are at increased risk of exposure, mainly through ingestion of food products, or ‘edibles,’” they wrote.
Doctors were skeptical of the connection, pointing out that there were still many other possible risk factors that could have caused the child’s condition. “It’s too much as far as I’m concerned,” Dr. Noah Kaufman, an emergency medicine specialist, told KUSA. “Because that is saying confidently that this is the first case. ‘We’ve got one!’ And I still disagree with that.”
“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,” Noah Kaufman, a Northern Colorado emergency room physician, also told the Post.
(Note: This story has been updated to include additional comments from the case study’s author.)