Although cannabis has been consumed by humans for around 10,000 years, the total number of people known to have died from an overdose currently stands at precisely zero.
As far as anyone knows, literally, no one in the history of time has suffered a fatal cannabis overdose. And there certainly aren’t any recorded cases in the medical literature. However, while it may be virtually impossible to blaze yourself to oblivion, getting a little too stoned is very much achievable. So, it’s not entirely accurate to say that you can’t overdose on cannabis.
Why Has There Never Been A Fatal Marijuana Overdose?
Every now and then, news reports pop up about the world’s first lethal cannabis overdose. But time and again, these claims end up being thoroughly debunked.
For example, back in 2017, a case study appeared in a medical journal describing the tragic death of an infant who was later found to have traces of THC in his system due to inhaling second-hand smoke[i]. However, after sensationalist claims began appearing in the media, the study authors went on record saying that there was no evidence to suggest that the cannabinoid had in any way caused the boy’s death.
As with all substances, cannabis probably can kill a person if they consume a ridiculous amount. Although the lethal threshold has never been identified. According to some calculations, ingesting 50 grams of pure tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) would likely lead to a 50 percent mortality rate in humans. But this has not been confirmed. Even if it were true, you’d be hard-pressed to get that amount of cannabis into your system. Anyone who attempted to smoke that amount of weed would likely die of smoke inhalation long before they got anywhere near the desired quantity.
Likewise, if you went down the edibles route, you’d probably reach a lethal level of salt or sugar ingestion before the THC became harmful.
Why Can’t you Have a Cannabis Overdose?
The inability of cannabis to trigger a fatal overdose comes down to the fact that cannabinoid receptors are mainly absent from the brainstem. That controls automatic functions like breathing. Drugs like opioids, for instance, bind to receptors in this part of the brain and cause breathing to become depressed. When an overdose occurs, breathing can cease altogether, which is why these drugs are so lethal.
Cannabis, on the other hand, binds mainly to receptors in higher-order brain centres and therefore doesn’t produce this dangerous effect. Having said that, certain synthetic cannabinoids are thought to be capable of triggering deadly side effects. For instance, earlier this month, a case report described the death of a 22-year-old man who supposedly committed suicide by vaping a lethal amount of a synthetic drug called 4F-MDMB-BINACA[ii]. However, it’s important to note that this substance does not work in the same way as natural cannabis, which is incapable of causing a similar overdose.
Does This Mean You Can’t Overdose On Cannabis?
Just because something can’t kill you doesn’t mean it can’t harm you if you over-indulge. Technically speaking, any time you experience adverse side effects due to consuming too much of something, you’ve had an overdose.
Fortunately, though, the consequences of a cannabis overdose are rarely too serious, although they can be very uncomfortable.
Most regular users will have whited out at some point in their lives. And, hopefully, have used the experience to learn about their limits.
Symptoms of a cannabis ‘overdose’ can include fatigue, impaired coordination, slight panic attacks, chest pain, increased heart rate, and a drop in blood pressure.
Anxiety and paranoia can also occur, although thankfully, all of these uneasy effects tend to pass after a few hours. If it doesn’t, you must seek medical attention.
Another thing to be aware of is that weed can be a little more dangerous if ingested by children. A study published in 2016 found that as cannabis legalisation spreads across the US, a growing number of young children are unwittingly eating their parents’ edibles after mistaking them for regular cakes or cookies, resulting in an increase in the number of kids ending up in the emergency room[iii].
A small number of these children have required assistance with breathing. But the vast majority are discharged with no need for medical treatment. Still, it’s things like this that make you realise that while you may not be able to die from a cannabis overdose, it’s still important to be responsible for your stash and marijuana use.
Cannabis isn’t Harmless
Despite there not being a history of people overdosing on weed, the effects of marijuana on some people can be pretty dangerous. Marijuana addiction is very real. It can easily turn into substance abuse.
If you’ve noticed you or a loved one have dramatically increased your cannabis use or are relying more heavily on certain cannabis products like edibles – you may need to detox or get some treatment.
Additionally, cannabis high in THC but low in CBD may unlock certain mental illnesses, psychosis, or other adverse effects for those not used to specific strains or those consuming cannabis for the first time.
The national institute on drug abuse says there aren’t any current treatment options for marijuana use disorder, but behavioral support is effective. More research may lead to new medications that help ease withdrawal symptoms, block the effects of marijuana, and stop relapse.
If you feel you may need addiction treatment, hundreds of healthcare organisations across the world can help. Never be ashamed to ask for help.
[i] Nappe TM, Hoyte CO. Pediatric death due to myocarditis after exposure to cannabis. Clinical practice and cases in emergency medicine. 2017 Aug;1(3):166. – https://escholarship.org/uc/item/1n10w5pc
[ii] Van Rafelghem B, Covaci A, Anseeuw K, van Nuijs AL, Neels H, Mahieu B, Jacobs W. Suicide by vaping the synthetic cannabinoid 4F-MDMB-BINACA: cannabinoid receptors and fluoride at the crossroads of toxicity?. Forensic Science, Medicine, and Pathology. 2021 Sep 20:1-5. – https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12024-021-00424-7
[iii] Cao D, Srisuma S, Bronstein AC, Hoyte CO. Characterization of edible marijuana product exposures reported to United States poison centers. Clinical toxicology. 2016 Oct 20;54(9):840-6. – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27418198/