Reefer Madness Continues: Can Marijuana Kill You?

(Dr. Mitch Earleywine was elected as the Chairman of the NORML Board of Directors in February 2014)

A recent headline reads: “Can Marijuana Kill You? German Scientists Say Yes.” The article focuses on a study of two (count ‘em, two!) young men who died while they had detectable levels of THC in their blood. I take a lot of pleasure in this kind of melodrama. If prohibitionists are stooping this low, we must really be frightening them. (It’s not completely pharmacologically ridiculous. Marijuana does increase heart rate. In fact, it can jack up heart rate almost as much as an espresso or energy drink. Maybe if you already had a weak heart and a coffee and a bong hit, well, something might happen.)

But I want to point out that we should actually expect literally thousands of reports like this. We should hear about lots of people who have heart attacks on the same day that they commune with the plant. It’s not because cannabis causes heart attacks. It’s simple chance.

I hate for my first blog as Chair of The Executive Board to be this nerdy, but I’ve been teaching statistics for more than 20 years. If that doesn’t make me a nerd, I’m not sure what would. But given how many people use cannabis daily and how many heart attacks occur in the United States, it’s actually a miracle that we haven’t heard about this kind of thing before. We also should expect to hear it a lot more often.

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, roughly 7,600,000 Americans (over age 12) used marijuana daily or near daily in 2012. In addition, the Center for Disease Control suggests that about 715,000 of us have heart attacks in a year. (Let’s assume those under age 12 are probably not grabbing their chests with a myocardial infarction too often.) In addition, let’s guess that the United States has about 280 million people over age 12. It’s hard to know the exact number, but that’s probably in the ballpark.

With this in mind, we can predict how many people should have a heart attack the same day that they used cannabis simply by chance. That is, even if these two things had nothing to do with each other, we should expect some folks to have a heart attack the same day that they used cannabis just by accident.

Okay. It’s going to get nerdy here, but this is comparable to asking simpler questions. If I had a dime and a nickel, I might want to know what the chances are that I’d flip heads on both. I flip heads 1 out of 2 times on average for the dime, for a probability of .5. Then I flip heads on the nickel 1 out of 2 times on average, also for a probability of .5. So the chances of flipping heads on both is .5 * .5 for .25. So we’d expect to get heads on both coins about 1Ž4 of the time. If I flipped both coins 100 times, I’d get around 25 pairs of heads. Note that there’s nothing causal here. The nickel doesn’t know what the dime did. It doesn’t want to be like the dime. It’s not that the dime caused the nickel to flip heads.

So it’s the same deal for the cannabis-related heart attacks. If 7.6 million people use cannabis daily out of 280 million relevant Americans, that’s a probability of .0271. And if 715 thousand of 280 million have heart attacks, that’s a probability of .0026. Multiply these the same way we did with the probabilities for flipping heads (.0271 * .0026 = .00007). Now .00007 is a dinky number. If there were only 100 people in the country, we wouldn’t expect any of them (well, .007) to have a heart attack and smoke cannabis on the same day. But we’re talking about 280 million people here. So we’d expect .00007 * 280,000,000, = 19,600. That’s over 19,000 heart attacks.

So the question isn’t, “How did these two guys die of a heart attack with THC in their blood?” It should be, “Where are the other 19,598 guys who should have had heart attacks with THC in their blood?” In fact, the absence of this many cannabis-related myocardial infarctions inspired my wife to ask, “Does cannabis protect the heart?”

If we repeal prohibition, we’ll get to find out.

Go AS, Mozaffarian D, Roger VL, Benjamin EJ, Berry JD, Borden WB, Bravata DM, Dai S, Ford ES, Fox CS, Franco S, Fullerton HJ, Gillespie C, Hailpern SM, Heit JA, Howard VJ, Huffman MD, Kissela BM, Kittner SJ, Lackland DT, Lichtman JH, Lisabeth LD, Magid D, Marcus GM, Marelli A, Matchar DB, McGuire DK, Mohler ER, Moy CS, Mussolino ME, Nichol G, Paynter NP, Schreiner PJ, Sorlie PD, Stein J, Turan TN, Virani SS, Wong ND, Woo D, Turner MB; American Heart Association Statistics Committee and Stroke Statistics Subcommittee. Heart disease and stroke statistics—2013 update: a report from the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2013 Jan 1;127(1):e6-e245.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Results from the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings, NSDUH Series H-46, HHS Publication No. (SMA) 13-4795. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2013.

68 thoughts

  1. @BobZ says,

    “The reason I smoke cigarettes is to mask the smell. Once it is legal I will quit smoking cigarettes.”

    Bizness as usual. Thanks for unmasking just another proof that the main reason behind cannabis prohibition is to protect the gawdgiven right of the Nicotine $igarette industry to kill 6,000,000 a year for profit.

  2. anony says:

    “The more important question would be: Is the level of THC today vastly different from what it once was in the 70s?

    There has been studies where the % of THC today than from the past is literally night and day. People with emotional instability can be worsened with potent marijuana, possibly causing psychosis and/or schizophrenic like symptoms.

    In other words, people are cultivating marijuana for the potency of getting high and not for medical purposes (which would be CBD to my knowledge).

    Just recently there was an article on Yahoo about ‘wax’ which is a super-concentrated form of THC residuals which according to them, is so potent that it will leave you high for more than a day (24 hours). God knows how much more damaging this may be to our ‘psyche’ let alone the fact that more studies are needed in this area. That is the endgame for marijuana’s future and possible legalization. Thank you~”

    There was plenty of strong pot during the 70s imported from the tropics,the main difference was, that back then, most of the growers/farmers let their plants open pollinate in the fields so there where lots of seeds and stems in the pot,Now days-the female plants are kept as un=pollinated virgins(sensimilla) and that raises the potency.The CBD levels should be higher now because of the Indica strains(that the hippies brought back from the middle-east during their travels in the 70s) that where introduced into the hybrids to shorten flowering time(due to prohibition) and add extra resin trichomes to the buds.

    As far as potency goes,Its the same as alcohol.No one in their right mind would drink brandy like it’s a Coors light,without learning the lesson the hard way.Going over the limit with potent pot is usually not a fun experience,most people evaluate their desired level on a hit by hit basis.Have you ever seen a person on an alcohol- blackout, with their eyes rolling into the back of their heads,while they are acting like their demon possessed? Its not pretty,but that is the danger with booze because after a few drinks we/they fell invincible,and will continue to drink while the nervous system is simultaneously being poisoned.Cannabis has the opposite effect usually making a person more meek and cautious,they might even, with imagination, see images in a tree or a cumulus cloud, but other than that, if you want to interpret fear and caution as a form of psychosis,then that is a biased perspective that more and more people are seeing through.
    The vested interest that has been driving this thing from the beginning.

    As far as concentrates go-Traditional hashish,dry-sift,hand rubbed or water extraction should be strong enough for anybodies taste.

    These butane-extracts that are causing these home explosions and ‘whiteouts’ is too strong, over the line, and unnecessary in my opinion,and i hope they stay illegal,and i agree with you,this will be used as media fodder for the propagandist.

  3. I have a weak heart from my dad he & 5 other brothers have a weak heart .dad used to get heart atts. I drink coffee every morning while I talk to dad. Then hit up some bowls and I start off my day Happy=0. I been doing that since about 8 years now n its all gravy.*I bet them 2 guys did some other ****. for sure.

  4. SMH… They need to get it together and legalize already!! It’s so dry around here you could start a forest fire!!

  5. Cannabis used medicinally or recreationally can leave its consumers in a state of being where their decisions can lead to dire consequences. To distort the truth of death in order to promote prohibition is a desperate act of disrespect and apathy for patients and their rights.

  6. Channel by AmberDelight
    We need to think about the Germans anyway…what good come out of Germany…Hitler!!! loose canon scientists, gas chambers , starvation, mass free rapes of men, woman, and children…stealing of property, and more lies and propaganda…just down right mass MURDER of millions of people.

    Bad enough our Government has allowed them over into the US…at what cost to us now..we are turning into what was going on over there; HERE!

    We are behaving mentally just like them and they, like us..does it feel like the Iron Curtain, in the US to you ?
    Remember they are the ones with remote viewing..they can cause us to commit suicide because of the guilt of their genocide of human beings, that still haunts them today. So why not dumb us down give us the big pharma drugs, they are forcing us to take.
    When, they can use psychic commands for you to jump or run in the back of a truck, stand and wait in front of a moving train; My response is:” you do it for you! I I’m Not you.”
    They can’t get through the smoke cloud ( screen) to you, when you use Cannabis..the devil HATES Cannabis..he can’t influence you , he can’t see you, it makes big mistakes behind smoke. He can smell you…when something smells burnt..snakes run!

    What is the Czar all about why can’t we get back our own country from this dis-respectable influence hovering all around us like a bad Omen!

    Not all are bad in each culture.. but when they start to take over and influence your country; we are in big trouble.

    No pond to Mr. Putin..he got his own issues to deal with. This trouble started back in the 1900, when the US started bank rolling both sides of the war 1 & 2..it’s been a love hate game ever since, with them now in Charge of our fate..I think NOT!

    Bet the air is better over there. Pot is most likely better there hummmm? Am I in the wrong country Ya’ll?
    They now can silently kill a huge number of mixed people now…The USA..all of us, we are the new killing field..
    ( SUICIDE by mental telepathy).
    We lay down our lives for our friends..who are our friends now? I want this satanic Demon to be Roasted like the PIG in Hell..in Yeshua’s name!
    Pass the Girl Scout Cookies joint !!! Scotty beam me up!

  7. Hey, what about the medical community? They have been killing off people for years – legally. And the money they have made killing people – mind boggling.

  8. Been smoking Cannabis since when they called it Mexican . Still smoking today its called hydro . Over 40 years and I’m still here . Rock and Roll . Plan on smoking till I die !

  9. I have had a defibrillator for over 20 years, to prevent my heart from racing too fast. I used to have a mouth full off abscessed teeth. to kill the pain I smoked cannabis I found out quickly that a small amount tiny by most folks standards killed the pain (better than the rum I had been drinking formerly.)I studied the effects with a critical eye since i prefer to avoid getting converted from a racing heartbeat. I found that cannabis does indeed raise my heart rate approximately 10 to 15 beats per minute in the short term. This rise in average heart rate lasted several several months. My metabolism rose with it I lost what I considered a significant amount of weight. My device never fired as a result of this. If anything my rhythm remained steadier than usual. I was able to walk as exercise, something I hadn’t been able to do in years. I cannot argue against something that had such a significant effect on my health. The amount smoked per day was approximately 2/10’s of a gram standard grade Indica variety. To me it is like any medicine My advice start small, you may be surprised that the amount you may need to treat your ailment may be so small , you’ll wonder what all the fuss is about.

  10. If we all or any of us reacted to this type of headline just out of surprise, even arbitrarily, we would also have to react in said fashion to headlines about pollution: water or air, being detected in the sysems of….. or even, heaven forbid, hotsauce, tobasco sauce, marinara sauce…. How stupid would this reporting blog, journal, publication or propoganda organ really have to be? For love of mike, pete, julie, whoever dumb do these publication editors have to be to print something so stupid, and blatantly not on subject have to be? Who gave this moron his job and the power to release??? Duh!!!Why is it drug addicts and computer afficionados are both called users?
    Clifford Stoll Ciao, ya’ll

  11. Thanks @M for that report. I wondered if you only measured heart rate immediately after a toke– or sometimes also several hours after the last one?

    2/l0 gram is eight (8) 25-mg single tokes in a Long-Drawtube One-Hitter. Or 2/10 gram can get burned away in one long drag on a H-ot B-urning O-verdose M-onoxide joint, with poor returns on the cannabinoid nutrients– but lots of Depression alias stonerism, media-blamed on the cannabis instead of on the monoxide.

    Like you I’ve had the impression that the large dosages claimed to be needed for medical users were media hype, calculated to make the high-profit 700-mg tobacco $igarette DOSAGE (half-ounce per pack– and there are pack-a-day $moker$) seem normal, rational etc. rather than just a trick to make more money off illness and death of gullible overdose victims.

    Cannabis legalization will eliminate excuses for “paraphernalia laws” and it will be safe to own and carry dosage reduction utensils. That will eliminate the 700-mg $igarette format and with it the nicotine addiction promotion masquerading as “drug enforcement” or “war aqainst drugs”.

  12. This article confuses “myocardial enfarction” or “hear attack” with cardiac arrhythmia, which can be just as deadly but harder to detect. This makes the entire article a straw man argument. The author needs to get his ducks in a row and do some research that’s actually relevant instead of trying to build propaganda around logical fallacies.

  13. But the question is if all of those people with heart attacks smoke only weed? Well its true weed is a gate way drug so most likely they do more than just weed. So im pretty sure that weed cannot kill you if thats the only drug substance in your system.

  14. Victor, if you’ve done any serious investigation into the effects of cannabis use you’d know there is not a single shred of legitimate scientific evidence to suggest cannabis is a gateway drug.

  15. I have smoked cannabis for over 45 years with no health or mental problems. I have earned a BS in Engineering and a MS in Computer Science with a 4.0 GPA. I’m 65, and my BP runs about 130/70.

    By my 45 year study, smoking cannabis causes perfect mental and physical health.

    BTW. Highway fatalities in Colorado are running slightly below normal since legalization.

  16. The past generations have been taught lies about drugs. Before I started smoking, I thought smokers were bad people and weed was dangerous. I have adhd, bipolar mood disorder NOS, Carpal tunnel, and anxiety. I live in Indiana and its still illegal but it helps me get through the day. I play guitar and it helps me keep playing but when I don’t smoke my hands lock up and hurt so bad. And it does not impair my judgement, I’ve never done anything dangerous, retarded, or impulsive. It slows my brain down and I can think instead of having a traffic jam of thoughts and ideas in my head. I dont think marijuana should be compared to alcohol at all, it doesn’t even come close to being drunk. Dont judge it if you haven’t actually tried it.

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