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Can Marijuana Kill You?


death star marijuana strainBy Mitch Earleywine

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.

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Johnny Green


  1. Two people died in the USA so far this year from cannabis. One of them killed their wife first. The other jumped off a ledge. And a woman in the UK names Gemma Moss had a heart attack after smoking pot (1). There have been many DUI deaths where marijuana was the ONLY drug found. Don’t you remember the woman last year that killed 8 people after drinking and smoking weed? They tested her for cannabis and found her blood serum levels showed she had smoked within 30 minutes of crashing. The number of fatal DUI deaths with cannabis only implicated has gone up 300% in San Francisco since 2010 (2). Cannabis use causes tachachardia, and has been implicated in many heart attacks. Read articles from .edu sites, not pro-marijuana sites. You will find honest information.
    (1) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2548669/Devout-Christian-mother-three-31-woman-Britain-DIE-cannabis-poisoning-smoking-joint-bed.html (2)Footnotes: http://seattle.cbslocal.com/2014/02/04/study-fatal-car-crashes-involving-marijuana-have-tripled/

  2. Ashley Roachclip on

    Let me just say something, I’m pro-pot and have been since I was a young pup and am not trying to drop biased bs to make pot sound bad what I’m about to say is just from personal experience in my time and is what I believe to be true based on my opinion.

    I don’t think it gives people heart attacks with no prior history or deficiencies, but If someone with heart problems smokes weed and gets a bad high/gets paranoid it could send their heart racing if you’ve ever had a really bad high when you feel like your heart is beating 100 bps and trigger a nasty paranoia stone. After a couple you learn to just let it go and see it as part of the buzz that body high tingling feeling after a fat bubble/honeycomb hash with oil and a lovely sprinkling of kief and a fat one to make it last. But back to the main point, if you have heart problems I think weed could very well trigger it, and yes I think it could be the one that finished you, if you have heart problems. Any drugs that impact your frame of mind can essentially kill someone with heart problems as the same paranoia from dope can occur from other mind altering substances.

    But I don’t think it can cause you to become heart attack prone or get them earlier, if you get them it’s quite common and and is most likely brought on with age when the time comes and it’s you find yourself getting them maybe it’s time to make an ultimatum, if I were in my 60s I doubt I would though, it’d be a bit late in the day and if die with a joint ill die with a smile.

    But that’s just me.

  3. Joseph Schutz on

    This is the actual text in German for those that read the language. The article is really funny.

    Wer hätte das gedacht? Der Konsum von Marihuana ist ungefährlicher als man bisher annahm. Deutsche Wissenschaftler der Uniklinik Düsseldorf haben herausgefunden, dass weltweit bis heute erst zwei Menschen an den Folgen von Cannabiskonsum gestorben sind. Man habe seit 2001 etliche Todesfälle untersucht und lediglich bei zweien konnte man die Ursache auf den Cannabis-Wirkstoff THC zurückführen, so Gerichtsmediziner Dr. Benno Hartung, der die Untersuchung durchführte. “Wir hätten nicht für möglich gehalten, dass Kiffen so sicher ist”.

    Die Ergebnisse überraschen in der Tat, galt der Konsum von Cannabis bisher als gefährlich und ist seit Jahren strafbar. Doch wie Dr. Hartung weiter sagt, kenne er derzeit eigentlich nur wenig Freizeitbeschäftigungen, die weniger tödlich sind. “Wir hatten allein im vergangenen Jahr 180 Todesfälle, die im Haushalt geschahen – während des Kochens, Duschens oder des Toilettenganges. Vier Leute starben sogar bei dem Versuch, sich lediglich eine Tasse aus dem Küchenschrank zu holen.”

    Selbst beim Schlafen kam es im vergangenen Jahr zu einem tödlichen Unfall, nachdem eine Frau im Schlaf aus dem Bett fiel und mit dem Kopf auf den Nachttisch krachte.

    Dr. Hartung fordert deshalb nicht nur die umgehende Legalisierung von Marihuana, er empfiehlt auch, alle anderen Aktivitäten, die die Menschen pro Tag so tätigen, aufs Nötigste herunterzufahren und sich stattdessen einen Joint zu gönnen. “Nur so haben sie eine erhöhte Überlebenschance”, so der Gerichtsmediziner abschließend.

    Google tranlation

    Who would have thought? The use of marijuana is less dangerous than was previously thought . German scientists at the University Hospital Dusseldorf have found that world to this day , only two people have died from the effects of cannabis use . We have examined a number of deaths since 2001 and only in two of you could attribute the cause to the cannabis ingredient THC, as coroner Dr. Benno Hartung, who conducted the investigation. ” We would not have thought it possible that smoking pot is as safe ” .

    The results are surprising , in fact, the use of cannabis was thought to be dangerous, and is liable to prosecution for years. But as Dr. Hartung further says that he knows at present actually little pastimes that are less deadly. “We had last year alone 180 deaths that occurred in the household – while cooking , showering or toilet Ganges. Four people even died in the attempt , only to get a cup from the cupboard . ”

    Even when sleeping , it came out last year in a fatal accident after a woman in her sleep fell off the bed and slammed his head on the bedside table.

    Therefore, Dr. Hartung calls not only for the immediate legalization of marijuana , he also recommends that all other activities that people per day so active , shut down down to the essentials and instead treat yourself to a joint . “Just as they have an increased chance of survival ,” said the coroner concluded.

  4. So…you had a heart/thyroid problem. You acknowledge that you’ve had this problem long term and for some reason never sought treatment. But rather than blame it on your heart/thyroid like he would absent of cannabis, your doctor blamed cannabis…yeah.

  5. I was pointing out that they ran a satirical article as FACT. No need to insult me. I didn’t insult you!

  6. cannaboss MD on

    you just dropped the knowledge bomb on these dumb fuckers i love it because this is wat my “intuition” led me to belive the second i read the first few lines :)

  7. cannaboss MD on

    ah yes i belive the medical term is takotsubo cardiomyopathy death by heart break for all we know thats what those ppl died from…

  8. dr cannaboss on

    fox news? you watch that bullshit? bhahahaha cmon man ther is no such thing as facts on a news show

  9. dr cannaboss on

    i think you need to smoke better weed shit cures cancer and 1000 other things no ones going to think that makes any sense -_-

  10. Well, the Amish have beards, right? That probably proves it. But doesn’t Glenn Beck have a beard now too?

  11. They look like they’re having too much fun to be taking mug shots. But, good point. :)

  12. okay I was a long time smoker of weed or cannabis witch one you would like to call it and it made my hart race a lot of times it can give you a hart attack it can trigger a thyroid dump of hormones that will give you a hart attack that is the only way it can kill you that is what killed those two , the cannabis was the trigger not the cause , I had waning sine’s for thirty year of smoking once in a wile my hart would race and I smoked every day , well I stopped for six month then I smoked some and it almost killed me my hart pick up a tack at 189 over 90 it should have stop at 170 over 70 my hart rate would clime and fall my hart did that foe four hours while the doctors watch in shock in the end they told me it was my thyroid that did that to my hart the cannabis was the trigger not the cause so cannabis can trigger a hormone dump that will cause a hart attack so in a way it can kill and I smoked for thirty years

  13. I would think it might stop a heart attack just because it helps stress, but I was halfway expecting some story’s like this.

  14. “Autopsies showed that the younger man had a serious undetected heart problem and the older one had a history of alcohol, amphetamine and cocaine abuse.”-cbsnews.com The men had serious UNDERLYING HEALTH ISSUES ! Their deaths could have been triggered by exercise, strenuous sex, too much coffee… In that 2 year period of the study, how many died from the physical effects of alcohol ??? Literally 5 MILLION worldwide ! Crap story…. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs349/en/

  15. IIRC… The article you’re citing was a satirical article. However Fox News reported it as FACT! They’ve since recanted the story. But I know EXACTLY what you’re talking about.

  16. Matthew Vanberg on

    When I read an article two weeks ago about a young lady in Great Britain, whom died under these circumstances. My immediate conclusion was exactly your logic: Coincidence. And for an educated, scientific person such as the coroner should be, the conclusion he drew about her death being caused by marijuana was disappointing.

  17. ColoradoDreaming on

    Not having access to cannabis is killing me. I am so ready to move away from the SE. I can only imagine the rhetoric down here if there is any type of reform. There could be an accident near a dispensary and the report would somehow try and make it look like the devil weed made it happen. Please, Please, Please, don’t let the ignorance rub off on me before I can get away….

  18. Always good to put a face with a name:
    Mitch Earleywine on the left (and Russ Belville on the right).

  19. Great article. I think it’s more likely cannabis reduces the likelihood of heart attacks by reducing stress, if nothing else.

  20. Foxeh Chandonnet on

    Pen Caps and Peanuts kill 100 people a year. People can die from too much oxygen, too much water and in weird cases, heart break…..still more people than have died from Marijuana. I guarantee Marijuana was in their blood when they died, but no one could ever make me believe, Marijuana was the cause of their death. Thats like…trying to convince me the Amish were behind the September 11th attacks

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