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VICE News

Those headlines about a baby's weed overdose death are totally wrong

by Rex Santus
Nov 17 2017, 10:15am

The death of an 11-month-old baby boy in Colorado has been blamed on a fatal overdose of marijuana — a shocking conclusion that experts and advocates said isn’t exactly the case.

The infant died in 2015 after he was admitted to a Colorado hospital, unresponsive and with no gag reflex, following a seizure. In the days prior, the baby’s behavior was “lethargic” and “irritable,” and he eventually went into cardiac arrest.

Doctors Thomas Nappe and Christopher Hoyte said they determined that only one thing could have caused the symptoms: marijuana, which they determined was in the baby’s blood in high concentrations. The report was largely overlooked until this week, when the doctors spoke with a local TV news broadcaster, which ran the story with the headline, “Colorado doctors claim first marijuana overdose death.” National outlets followed suit and the “overdose” claim quickly went viral.

There’s just one problem: The doctors themselves dispute the assertion that weed caused a fatal overdose.

Nappe and Hoyte did not respond to VICE News’ requests for an interview, but Nappe told the Washington Post that “we are absolutely not saying that marijuana killed that child.”

Hoyte also addressed the stories in a tweet.

In his interview with Denver NBC station KUSA, however, Hoyte did say the baby’s death could be somehow linked to marijuana exposure.

“The only thing that we found was marijuana. High concentrations of marijuana in his blood. And that’s the only thing we found,” Hoyte said in the TV interview. “The kid never really got better. And just one thing led to another and the kid ended up with a heart stopped. And the kid stopped breathing and died.”

Hoyte and Nappe found that the child died from an inflamed heart muscle, a condition known as myocarditis — and they think exposure to cannabis triggered the event. They pointed to other cases of marijuana seemingly triggering myocarditis in patients, though the other patients made full recoveries.

Even the DEA acknowledges marijuana has never caused a fatal overdose, so the baby’s death would indeed be the first of its kind. But the doctors’ report only posits that “there exists a plausible relationship” between marijuana and the death that “justifies further research.” Other experts and advocates for marijuana legalization say that pointing to this boy as a definitive example of death by weed overdose is jumping the gun.

“There has to be more information to show that this link is real,” Dr. William Checkley, an associate professor of medicine, international health, and biostatistics at Johns Hopkins University, told VICE News.

Checkley said he found the contents of the doctors’ report plausible, but he noted that one case alone isn’t definitive. He also said that the Colorado doctors need to more decisively demonstrate the link between myocarditis and marijuana exposure. It’s possible that the baby’s heart condition could have been coincidental to the marijuana exposure.

Checkley isn’t the only skeptic.

“Any purported link between cannabinoid ingestion and myocarditis is, at this point, both premature and speculative,” said Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, a nonprofit marijuana legalization advocacy group.

Even a Colorado health official admitted the report is not a slam-dunk.

Daniel Vigil, director of the state’s Marijuana Health Monitoring and Research Program, said that still doesn’t mean the doctors are wrong. Case reports like theirs are meant to inform about possible connections, and it’s certainly possible that there’s a link between marijuana exposure and the heart condition that killed the baby boy, he said.

One thing is certain: No one is certain.