Estimates of the number of deaths attributable to cannabis vary wildly, from the preposterous claim of 30,000 per year published in a largely-debunked letter to the British Medical Journal in 2003, all the way down to zero. Here, we assess the claims made by the media and the science - or lack of it - behind them.
Estimates of the number of deaths attributable to cannabis vary wildly, from the preposterous claim of 30,000 per year published in a largely-debunked letter to the British Medical Journal in 2003, all the way down to zero. Here, we assess the claims made by the media and the science – or lack of it – behind them.
Repeated Official Refusals to Recognise Safety of Cannabis
As recently as August 2013, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) claimed, to widespread derision, that cannabis was no less toxic than alcohol. This claim was made via email to (and reported by) Politifact, a well-known fact-checking organisation, who at the time was ascertaining the validity of a prior claim made by the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) to the effect that cannabis was less harmful than alcohol.
The email stated that “claiming that marijuana is less toxic than alcohol cannot be substantiated since each possess their [sic] own unique set of risks and consequences for a given individual”. However, on the basis of the substantial body of evidence indicating that alcohol is indeed more harmful than cannabis, Politifact ultimately rated the MPP’s claim ‘mostly true’.
Cannabis Actually Much Safer than Other Drugs
Heavy use of alcohol has been shown to significantly increase risk of death through direct means (alcohol poisoning) and indirect (cirrhosis, cardiovascular disease, stroke). Studies also suggest that overall life expectancy is substantially reduced in heavy alcohol drinkers.
Cocaine and heroin are also able to cause death directly through overdose; long-term use of cocaine may also cause cardiovascular and respiratory ill-health, seizures, intra-cranial haemorrhage and stroke. As well as this, illegal, unsafe cocaine and heroin use are associated with various other health risks, often related to use of unsterile equipment.
Through these means alone, the above substances are already far more lethal than cannabis. The media has attempted to seek out all and any cases in which cannabis could be cited as a factor, no matter how indirect; if the above three substances were scrutinised in the same manner, the number of deaths that could be loosely linked to them would be staggeringly huge – far greater than the handful linked to cannabis.
Even Synthetic Cannabis is Unlikely to Cause Death
As a direct result of prohibitionary policies and unmet demand for cannabis, synthetic cannabinoid analogues have been flooding the market in many countries including the UK and Australia, and many US states.
Such products are often legal as they are new to the market, but many countries have swiftly enacted legislation to ban them. However, this had led to a cycle of even more new and untested synthetic products appearing as little as days or hours after previous products have been banned.
Several of these synthetic cannabinoids have been implicated in deaths in humans. There is some degree of demonization of these products occurring just as occurs with cannabis itself, as most cases are not unambiguous and could have resulted from other factors.
There is sufficient evidence to say that certain synthetic cannabinoids can cause toxic reactions, including acute myocardial infarction, but deaths directly and incontrovertibly resulting from synthetic cannabinoids are extremely rare to non-existent.
How Lethal is Cannabis?
Cannabis use is unlikely to significantly increase risk of death even through indirect means. If driving while intoxicated, depending on one’s level of impairment, the risk of accident may be increased – but this idea is disputed. If susceptible to an underlying psychiatric condition, cannabis use may trigger suicidal thoughts, but has not been shown to significantly increase rates of completed suicides.
So it appears that the side of logic has been vindicated. Cannabis is not directly responsible for any deaths, and while it may be a factor in some, it is never the sole contributing factor. There may be new evidence of cannabis’ lethality that will come up in the future, as consumption becomes more prevalent, and as long-term studies follow regular users into old age. However, it is highly unlikely that the risk will be anywhere near alcohol, tobacco or the various other popular drugs.
If we were a naturally abstinent species, perhaps the argument would hold up that every drug that may increase risk of death, however infinitesimally, should be restricted. But we are not – it is estimated that 90% of the global population regularly consumes caffeine in some form; around 20% use tobacco, and up to 50% consume alcohol regularly. In this case, providing our populations with the safest possible intoxicants seems to be the only way forward.