Marijuana has been for years one of the most common illicit drugs available in the United States. Further, its relative low cost as well as the generally diminished perspective of the drug’s dangers has caused a lower rate of use until the beginning of the most recent decade. Ironically, it is for these same reasons as well as the political upheaval surrounding the controversy over marijuana legalization that has caused an increase in marijuana use over the past few years. With all of this turmoil over marijuana, its use and legalization, one of the most obvious questions is, “can you overdose on marijuana?”
What Is Marijuana?
Marijuana, which is also known by many other names, is a preparation of leaves from the cannabis plant, which contains 483 known compounds, the most important being tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is the primary psychoactive ingredient of the plant. The effects of the drug on humans include a heightened mood, euphoria, an increase in appetite, and relaxation.
How Have We Gotten to Where We Are?
Marijuana has had a long and storied history since the known beginning of its use in about the third millennium B.C.E., when it was found in a charred form in a ritual brazier in Romania. In 2003, a basket was found with evidence of dried marijuana leaves and seeds inside of a 2,500 to 2,800 year old shaman mummy in northwestern China. Coincidentally, as much evidence as has been found to support the fact that the plant was used for its religious and medicinal benefits, there is also considerable evidence for its use as a recreational drug as well. Even “The Bard,” William Shakespeare, is thought to have enjoyed an occasional “hit” after researchers hypothesized that the “noted weed” mentioned in Sonnet 76 and the “journey in my head” from Sonnet 27 could be references to cannabis and the use thereof. This theory became even more compelling when in 2001 pipes were dug up from the garden of his home in Stratford-upon-Avon containing traces of cannabis.
The late 1800s saw the first publication of several reports which described the negative effects of cannabis use. And even though these reports contained erroneous fact, and even some outright falsehoods, the stage had been set for the beginning of the 20th century, ushering in the first restrictions on the sale of cannabis, which for better or for worse, was lumped together with other more potent drugs such as opium and heroin. Partly due to the alarms that these reports set off, the United States passed the Marihuana Tax Act in 1937, which prohibited the production of hemp in addition to cannabis.
Part of the campaign to pass this and subsequent laws was the fear inducing reports of a “medical” nature that described the harmful effects of marijuana, one of which was that an overdose of the drug could occur. This fear has been reinforced over the years by many reports and statements by “experts,” culminating recently in an article published the day after Colorado legalized the recreational use of marijuana as passed by the voters on January 1, 2014. In the next day’s issue of The Daily Currant, an online newspaper, 37 people had been killed across the state on January 1, the first day the drug became legal for all adults to purchase.
Several more were reported as clinging to life in local emergency rooms and were not expected to survive. The story goes on to quote the chief of surgery at St. Luke’s Medical Center in Denver, Dr. Jack Shepard, as saying, “I’ve put five college students in body bags since breakfast and more arriving every minute. We are seeing cardiac arrests, hypospadias, acquired trimethylaminuria and multiple organ failures. By next week the death toll could go as high as 200, maybe 300. Someone needs to step in and stop this madness. My God, why did we legalize marijuana? What were we thinking?”
By the end of the day links and excerpts referencing this article were being circulated via social media around the world. Unfortunately, what no one was considering is the fact that The Daily Currant is a satirical newspaper, and the story being circulated, just as is the case with all their stories was purely fictitious.
There is also one other important point to consider about the nature of the drug. Can you overdose on marijuana? The answer is yes and no.
What Are the Facts About Marijuana Overdose?
First, a “marijuana overdose” is virtually a medical impossibility. However, deaths in which marijuana plays a contributing factor is a very real possibility. The instances of deaths being caused by marijuana are usually attributed to the use of other drugs or the result of marijuana’s effect on a health condition that is already present in an individual.
To “overdose” on marijuana is what is called a “green out,” which is to temporarily overdose on the drug. Greening out is only a temporary effect and will not result in any permanent disability. Further, the effects of greening out begin to subside within minutes to hours of the use. Marijuana overdose symptoms include:
* Paranoia, fear, anxiety
* Pupil dialation
* Shortness of breath
* Vomiting and/or nausea
* Increased heart rate
* Shakiness and feeling cold
* Disorientation or hallucinations
* Hung over
Despite the fact that the user who is suffering from the effects of a green out will probably not die as a result, they should have medical attention as quickly as possible in case there are complications. For example, there is a possibility that someone who has purchased their drug on the streets could end up with a batch that has been treated with stronger drugs and chemicals that they do not expect. As a result of these, there could be side-effects from these drugs. There is also the possibility of allergic reactions to the drugs in the user.
A Little Science, Please
There have been a number of studies done on the effects of THC on the human body. The results have all been the same: THC does have a psychoactive element which will produce a “high,” but there is no evidence that THC or any other ingredient in marijuana has a toxic effect on the human body.
In order to die of marijuana use, a person would have to ingest approximately 40,000 times the amount of marijuana that it took to get them high in the first place. For comparison, if you got drunk on three beers, it would take 15 to 30 beers to kill you. Likewise, if you took three puffs of marijuana to get high, it would take 120,000 puffs of marijuana smoke to kill you.
In order to determine the level at which a marijuana overdose death would occur, scientists use what is called a “lethal dosage.” This formula is arrived at by administering a test substance, in this case marijuana, until 50 percent of test animals in a lab die. Scientists call this the LD-50. With this formula, scientists have determined that giving very small animals such as rats and mice a dosage of 1000mg per kilogram can cause death. Larger animals, by contrast, did not reach an LD-50 even when given 3000mg per kilogram of body weight.
Although it is true that death by using marijuana is highly unlikely, it is also true that combined with other factors, it can kill. Further, there are short- and as well long-term effects on users of marijuana, including:
* Anxiety and panic attacks
* Memory loss
* Slowed and impaired thinking and judgment
* Slowed muscle response
* Cardiac complications for those with heart disease and high blood pressure
* Driving impairment for up to 24 hours after ingestion
* Memory and learning issues
* Decreased fertility
The net effect of all of this that although there is practically no chances that a person can die as a result of an overdose on marijuana, there is plenty of evidence for negative short and long term effects as well as the unknown element which could lurk in practically anyone.