Edible Marijuana Overdoses May Be Linked to Two Self-Inflicted Deaths
Two men who killed themselves a year apart both had eaten large amounts of marijuana-laced sweets, fueling ongoing concerns about the labeling and uneven effects of pot edibles.
Both men ate the marijuana treats and apparently didn’t know that digesting pot takes three times longer to kick in than inhaling it. When they didn’t feel high, they ate more of it — a potentially harmful practice called “stacking” doses.
“Edible products are responsible for the majority of health care visits due to marijuana intoxication for all ages,” reported a December study of legalized pot’s impacts in Colorado.
Colorado is the first state in the nation to permit recreational use, which was voter-approved in 2012 and enacted Jan. 1, 2014. Nowhere in the world — not even in Amsterdam, famous for its public weed use — has done as much as Colorado to legalize and regulate sales of marijuana. But addiction treatment doctors fear a growing dependence on pot, and on several fronts, the upshot has caught authorities unprepared, including that of edible pot.
About the Deaths Involving Edible Pot
The more recent of the two deaths remains under investigation, according to the Summit County Sheriff and Coroner Dept. in Colorado, where pot edibles and other marijuana products are legal for those 21 and older. While the probe continues into circumstances around the death, the sheriff’s department said witnesses reported that the victim had eaten “a large amount” of marijuana candy before his death. Summit County Coroner Regan Wood said that lab tests aren’t completed for a final conclusion.
Luke Gregory Goodman, 22, of Tulsa, OK, died on March 24, 2015, while on a family ski trip in Keystone, CO, when witnesses told investigators that he ate multiple servings of marijuana-infused candies, the Summit County Coroner’s Office said. Some hours after eating the candies, he shot himself in the head, and after two days on hospital life support, he died, Wood said.
When autopsy reports are complete, “we’ll have a better understanding of whether there was marijuana in his system, or anything else,” said sheriff’s department spokesperson Teneil Ilano.
Family Blames Edible Pot
But Goodman’s family told a TV reporter that it blames his self-inflicted death on an overdose of the marijuana candy he ate. Goodman, who would’ve turned 23 in April, they said, was a well-adjusted graduate of Oral Roberts University, a Tulsa-based Christian college.
“It was 100 percent the drugs,” Goodman’s mother told Denver TV station CBS4. “It was completely because of the drugs — he had consumed so much of it.”
If the toxicology tests prove Goodman had high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main active chemical in marijuana or cannabis — and find it contributed to him shooting himself — it would mark the second instance of self-harm linked to edible pot in Colorado since January, 2014, which is when general retail sales of marijuana products began.
Wyoming college student Levy Thamba, 19, fatally jumped from a Denver hotel balcony in March 2014 after eating six times the labeled recommendation of a marijuana cookie, Denver police concluded. Thamba, an international student on scholarship at Northwest College in Powell, WY, visited Denver on his spring break, not long after he moved from Africa’s Democratic Republic of Congo.
Thamba’s death wasn’t labeled a suicide, but he’d consumed an entire Sweet Grass Kitchen-brand lemon poppy seed cookie containing 65 milligrams of THC, the police report said. Friends sharing the same hotel room with him reported that Thamba, like Goodman, said he felt no high after eating part of the cookie, so he ate the whole thing.
Sometime later, the Denver Post reported, quoting police, Thamba woke in the early morning hours, speaking French and shivering, but his friends calmed him back to sleep. Several more times he awoke and babbled, even talking to a lamp. Once, he walked out of the hotel room but returned, declaring, “This is a sign from God that this has happened, that I can’t control myself,” Thamba’s friend recounted to police.
Again Thamba fell back to sleep, only to awake deranged, then thrashed furniture and the TV. This final time, he bolted from the fourth-floor room and went over a balcony railing overlooking the interior lobby.
Grieving friends joined faculty at Northwest College in posting comments on news stories, describing him as a responsible gentleman and stellar engineering student.
“THC is associated with psychosis, anxiety and depressive symptoms,” according to a study of its impact in Colorado. Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in late 2014, the report was written by Andrew A. Monte, MD, and Kennon J. Heard, MD, PhD, both of the University of Colorado’s department of emergency medicine and the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center, and by Richard D. Zane, MD, also with UC’s emergency medicine department. The trio assessed “The Implications of Marijuana Legalization in Colorado.”
Most of what’s known conclusively about pot, they said, is its negative health impacts, and to quantify positive marijuana experiences will demand high-caliber research that’s currently crippled by the federal government’s classification of cannabis as a Schedule I drug.
In the most recent case in which edibles preceded a young man’s death in Colorado, the Goodman family spoke exclusively to the local CBS4 TV station, which was widely quoted in the media, including the Denver Post.
Goodman and his cousin, Caleb Fowler, bought the edible cannabis in another town, Fowler was quoted saying. Back at their condo, Goodman ate what Fowler described as “several peach tart candies,” each of which contained the 10 milligrams per dose mandated by the state. When Goodman felt no high, he ate another, then another — downing what was five times the recommended dose.
A few hours later, Goodman became “jittery,” Fowler told CBS4. “He would make eye contact with us but didn’t see us, didn’t recognize our presence almost. He had never got close to this point. I had never seen him like this.”
Sometime before dawn, he got his gun and shot himself in a manner the coroner called a suicide. After his death, his mother decried the pot candy. “I would love to see edibles taken off the market,” Kim Goodman told CBS4. “I think edibles are so much more dangerous.”
Ongoing Concerns About Pot Edibles
“Stacking” of edible marijuana doses, particularly sweets such as cookies and candy, is a critical part of an increase in marijuana-related hospital emergency room visits in Colorado, according to the JAMA report.
“In terms of edible overdoses, I would say we occasionally see them,” Dr. Heard wrote in an e-mail. “We are not systemically tracking them. It is my impression we are seeing fewer now than we saw right after legalization, but that is only an impression. I have not seen anyone presenting with a self-harm attempt after using edibles.”
Edibles are so new in the larger-scale market that more research is critical, say the University of Colorado emergency department doctors. Last October, the first Halloween in which marijuana was legally sold for recreation, there was widespread concern about the possibility that pot-laced candy might mistakenly be given to trick-or-treaters.
Because of the concern, a dispensary owner made a video for the Denver Police Department describing a cheaper but potentially dangerous shortcut to creating cannabis candy: Some sellers were taking regular candy purchased at discounted bulk rates, then infusing them with hash oil from the marijuana plant. It could easily be mistaken for regular candy, he warned.
Edible marijuana comprises the majority of hospital visits, likely because adult consumers fail to understand the delayed effects of eating versus inhaling pot, the University of Colorado study team wrote. Factors such as weight and experience using the drug can vary the impact on a person. While weed may not be as addictive as other drugs, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) says 9 percent of marijuana smokers get addicted and 17 percent of users grow dependent if they started smoking it as teenagers. Twenty-five to 50 percent of daily users become addicted, NIDA says.
Legalizing Edible Marijuana
Opponents and advocates of legalized marijuana tend to dispute that dependency, but they agree on the need for public education about edible cannabis. There is labeling, but the size and amount of THC among types of the same marijuana edibles can vary significantly.
State regulators are still trying to get standardized testing of products worked out. Retail shops might be advising consumers, but its wider use is relatively new, even in Colorado, the frontier of liberalized use. Besides Colorado, it’s legal to buy marijuana retail in Washington, and Alaska and Oregon approved it for recreational use in late 2014, where it’s expected to go into effect in 2015. Washington, D.C., voters approved recreational use but not retail sales.
Oregon is learning from the experience of Colorado, where marijuana edibles made up about 40 percent of recreational pot sales in 2014. Edible pot sales may be postponed until Oregon regulations are in place to ensure safe production, labeling and packaging — all of which Colorado has had to do in the wake of rising concerns.
The Danger of Pot “Candy”
Most alarming: In the first nine months of 2014, the Children’s Hospital of Colorado admitted 14 children for accidental consumption of marijuana, with seven of them taken to the intensive care unit. “The vast majority of intensive care admissions were related to ingestion of edible THC products,” the JAMA report states.
“I will say [the] public health department in the state has developed a large campaign to warn against stacking doses,” Dr. Monte said via e-mail. “Labeling is part of this campaign, but public health messaging is probably more effective.”
Other fallout from increased edibles sales: “Experimentation with new ways to use and produce THC products has resulted in unexpected health effects, including an increased prevalence of burns, cyclic vomiting syndrome, and health care visits due to ingestion of edible products,” the medical team wrote in the JAMA report.
The downside of pot edibles is proof for decriminalizing it, some say. “This is the argument for legalization,” says attorney Bruce Margolin, a lawyer who specializes in marijuana defense cases and is a spokesperson for the Los Angeles chapter of NORML, a national pot reform organization. “It’s otherwise all under the table. People make [marijuana] cookies in their house and bake them with whatever amount they want to.”