US

Marijuana Overdose Caused Woman’s Death, Coroner Says

By Zachary Stieber

A marijuana overdose caused the death of a Louisiana woman, a coroner said.

The death of the 39-year-old LaPlace woman happened in February. Tests appeared to show she was killed by ingesting too much THC, the main ingredient in marijuana.

“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. There was nothing else,” St. John the Baptist Parish Coroner Christy Montegut told the New Orleans Advocate.

Montegut said that the woman was found laying on a sofa inside the apartment. Investigators couldn’t find any evidence to explain the death so they requested an autopsy, which found that the woman had healthy organs, including lungs, and no indications of illness.

Montegut thought that alcohol poisoning may have caused the death but then received the toxicology results.

“I was kind of surprised that the only thing we found was elevated levels of THC,” Montegut told WWL-TV.

According to a review of cannabis use in the United States published in 2017, marijuana causes a host of problems such as increased risk of injury or fatality while driving high.

But “there are no known cases of fatal overdose from cannabis use in the epidemiologic literature,” researcher Deborah Hasin of Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute wrote.

Montegut is aware and said this could be the first fatal overdose from marijuana. However, it could have happened in an unusual way, he added.

“I’m thinking this lady must have vaped this THC oil and got a high level in her system and (it) made her stop breathing, like a respiratory failure,” Montegut, the parish coroner since 1988, told the Advocate.

He said that the woman’s vaping pen wasn’t found at the scene, but he researched vaping products on the internet and said he located some that had over 70 percent THC. A marijuana cigarette, which users roll with rolling papers, typically contains about 10-20 percent THC.

“At high levels, marijuana can cause respiratory depression, which means a decrease in breathing, and if it’s a high enough level it can make you stop breathing,” Montegut told WWL-TV.

According to a police report, the boyfriend of the woman told officers she’d gone to the emergency room about three weeks prior to the death due to a chest infection.

The toxicology report showed that the deceased woman had 8.4 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood.

Bernard Le Foll, a professor and scientist at the University of Toronto who studies addiction, was among those disputing Montegut’s assessment.

“That number is not very high,” Le Foll said, estimating that a fatal THC level would have to be at least 100 times higher.

It wasn’t clear if Le Foll or the other experts who disputed the assessment in interviews with the Advocate had reviewed all the information about the woman’s death that Montegut had.

Le Foll noted that that the THC concentration definitely fell between the time of death and the autopsy.

While Montegut said lawmakers should be careful about opening access to marijuana, Keith Humphreys, a former senior policy adviser at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy under President Barack Obama, claimed that even if the woman died from a marijuana overdose, it wouldn’t mean anything.

“It doesn’t justify really anything from a policy viewpoint. It’s just so incredibly unlikely,” he said.