17 Mar German Study Finds Cannabis Use Triggered 2 Deaths
Cannabis (marijuana, hashish) is known for its ability to produce significant mind alteration, as well as for its ability to make a number of alterations in the body’s normal function. However, unlike alcohol and a range of drugs and medications, the drug is not typically directly linked to increased short-term risks for fatal changes in health status. In a study published in February 2014 in the journal Forensic Science International, researchers from Germany’s Institute of Legal Medicine investigated the role of cannabis use in the deaths of two young adults who appeared generally healthy. The researchers concluded that cannabis-related changes in normal heart function were strongly indicated as the immediate contributing factors to these deaths.
Cannabis use is fairly common throughout much of the world, especially in the form of marijuana use. The latest available figures from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (compiled for the year 2012) indicate that slightly fewer than 19 million Americans age 12 or older use marijuana in the average month. This total far outstrips the number of users for any other illegal or illicit drug and equals slightly more than 7 percent of the entire population in the indicated age range. Teenagers and young adults in their early and mid-20s are considerably more likely to use marijuana and other illicit drugs than younger or older segments of the population. In 2012, the peak rate of illicit drug use (23.9 percent) occurred in teens and young adults between the ages of 18 and 20. The second and third highest rates of use occurred among young adults between the ages of 21 and 25 (19.7 percent) and 16- and 17-year-old teenagers (16.6 percent).
Cannabis users experience several notable changes in both their short-term and long-term body function. Changes specifically associated with active use and a current state of cannabis intoxication include a diminished ability to form or access short-term memories, a diminished ability to properly coordinate one’s muscles and stay balanced while moving, the development of symptoms normally linked to a debilitating mental state called psychosis (i.e., delusions and hallucinations) and a reduced capacity to carry out such high-level mental tasks as making accurate judgments or thinking logically. Critically, people under the influence of cannabis can also experience profound changes in their normal heart rate. It’s not uncommon for intake of the drug to add 20 to 50 beats per minute to a user’s baseline, short-term rate. In some cases, cannabis intoxication can trigger a heart rate increase of fully 100 percent. In addition, the rate can rise even higher in people who combine cannabis intake with the intake of other drugs.
In the study published in Forensic Science International, the German research team reviewed the cases of two young men (ages 28 and 23) with no apparent health problems who were under the influence of cannabis when they died suddenly. This review included a complete postmortem examination for both men, which included a full autopsy, a toxicology panel, testing of tissue samples, testing of immune system responses and a search for genetic markers of disease.
The researchers found that each of the two men had non-cannabis-related problems that significantly altered their health status. For instance, one man had a previously undiscovered heart malfunction, while the other had previously abused other substances known for their potential to cause serious health alterations, including cocaine, amphetamine and alcohol. However, despite the presence of these problems, the researchers concluded that each man most likely died of short-term changes in cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) function specifically related to the impact of smoking cannabis. In addition to cannabis-related changes in heart rate, they noted the drug’s ability to substantially boost the blood pressure of individuals lying down in a face-up position.
Significance and Considerations
The authors of the study published in Forensic Science International believe they are the first researchers to fully explore the potential causes of death in someone who died unexpectedly while under the influence of cannabis. They specifically note that the chances that any given individual will die suddenly while using the drug are quite low. However, they also note a public health need to inform people with known histories of heart and blood vessel disease of the potential dangers they face when using cannabis. On a related note, since some people have undetected cardiovascular problems, no one can say for sure how many cannabis users may be at-risk for sudden fatal outcomes.
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