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In the News: Study Claims to Find First Ever Cannabis Caused Deaths

BERLIN – A German study reported that the deaths of two men with underlying health conditions were likely caused by complications resulting from their marijuana use.

The cases involved two men who died unexpectedly after smoking marijuana. Each was young and outwardly healthy: a 23-year-old and a 28-year-old.

The study’s researchers, based at the hospitals of Duesseldorf University and Frankfurt University, said these were isolated cases but suggested people who might have serious heart problems should be made aware of the risk of marijuana use. “To our knowledge, these are the first cases of suspected fatal cannabis intoxications,” wrote the researchers.

These findings, which were published online this month in Forensic Science International, are the first of their kind because cannabis use isn’t known to cause serious health problems, and especially not death.

Autopsy Reports

This is more likely a case of sensationalized news. Although marijuana use might have been a precipitating factor in each death, it’s important to note that, in each case, there were other, perhaps overriding factors that led to death. In the case of the 23-year-old, the autopsy found that he had a serious undetected heart problem. And as for the 28-year-old, it’s noted that he had a history of alcohol, amphetamine and cocaine abuse.

In each case, the man had an underlying condition that, when combined with cannabis use – which is known to affect heart rate and/or blood pressure, especially when lying down, may have caused each of the men’s heart rhythms to be affected in such a way as to lead to death.

German Study

One of the study’s authors, a Dr. Benno Hartung, said the two cases of fatality were among 15 deaths reviewed between 2011 and 2012 by scientists. The 13 remaining cases were found to have other factors that were more likely to blame for the resulting death.

In an email to The Associated Press on Wednesday, Hartung said “We assume that these are very rare, isolated cases,” noting that it was difficult to draw any other conclusions about the number of possible cannabis-related deaths.

What the researchers concluded was this: that, while cannabis isn’t particularly toxic and its effects are short lived, people who are at high risk for cardiovascular diseases should avoid the drug.

Dr. David Nutt, chairman of Britain’s Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs, is known for his studies on the harmfulness of drugs – having created a risk/harm scale with which to rate each known drug. He was not part of the study but weighed in on it, saying that the researchers had presented an “exceptionally complete collection of evidence in support of their theory that, unusually, cannabis was the trigger for these two tragedies.” He added that “people with vulnerable hearts should be informed of this risk with cannabis.”

Nutt compared cannabis-related risk to other factors, saying that any additional strain to the heart, such as strenuous activity, can also have fatal consequences in people with an underlying heart condition.

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