What can we actually learn from the UK's first marijuana 'overdose'?

Gemma Moss recently became the first woman in Britain "ruled to have been poisoned to death by smoking cannabis," her sudden death referred to by tabloids as "the tragic proof that cannabis can kill." But Moss's story, while undeniably sad, has told us next to nothing about the dangers of pot. At the same time, its coverage has distracted from other, more practical conversations about drug safety and research.

Photo Credit: AP

"I cannot begin to understand the pathologist's certainty that cannabis killed Gemma Moss, but neither do I wish to contradict him outright," writes psychopharmacologist David Nutt in a blog post published yesterday at the website run by the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs (an organization dedicated to educating the public on the harms and benefits of legal and controlled drugs in the UK).

But when Nutt, a former chief drug advisor to the UK, raises the question of what Moss's case can teach us about the dangers of smoking pot, his response is unequivocal: "I think the answer is nothing."

Nutt isn't being cold – he's being realistic. "Taking any amount of cannabis," he writes, "like all drugs, like so many activities, puts some stresses on the body." He continues:

Cannabis usually makes the heart work a little harder and subtly affects its rate and rhythm. Any minor stress on the body can be the straw that breaks the camel's back, the butterfly's wingbeat that triggers the storm. Ms Moss had suffered with depression, which itself increases the risk of sudden cardiac death. It is quite plausible that the additional small stress caused by that cannabis joint triggered a one-in-a-million cardiac event, just as has been more frequently recorded from sport, sex, saunas and even straining on the toilet.

To suggest that a single incident – in which, it bears repeating, Moss smoked less than a joint's-worth of marijuana – should ever be weighed seriously against weed's history as a drug with no immediately lethal consequences is not only unreasonable, it distracts from more meaningful discussions about the actual dangers posed by drugs, illicit or otherwise:

With scant formal drugs education and negligible public information, our national conversation about drugs is built around the telling of tragic stories like that of Gemma Moss, Leah Betts and Amy Winehouse. Although the facts may be at least part true, these stereotyped stories subtract from rather than adding to the public understanding of drugs... The types of drugs, people and harm in these stories are not representative of the real burden drugs cause in society.

Moreover – and perhaps more importantly – it draws attention away from discussions over the potential benefits that traditionally illicit drugs could have in the treatment of sickness and disease, including psychiatric disorders. Nutt doesn't raise these issues in this specific blog post, but his history vouches for his interest and involvement in the conversation over drugs' untapped therapeutic potential. Nutt was famously dismissed from his position as chief drug advisor to the UK in 2009, after criticizing the government's classification of illegal substances and their potential for inflicting harm – stating, among other things, that ecstasy was statistically no more dangerous than an addiction to horse-riding. In spite of his dismissal, Nutt remains one of the few researchers in the UK licensed to study Class A drugs, those substances thought to pose the greatest harm, or potential harm, to individuals and society. More recently, Nutt has attracted attention for his groundbreaking investigations into psilocybin (the hallucinogenic compound found in magic mushrooms) and MDMA (aka ecstasy) – research he believes could be instrumental in the development of new treatments for disorders like depression or PTSD.

Nutt is far from alone in this thinking. In an editorial published in today's Scientific American, the magazine's editors call for an end to the Drug War's ban on psychoactive drug research, imploring national and international lawmakers to let scientists investigate whether drugs like LSD, marijuana and ecstasy could be used to ease psychiatric disorders:

LSD, ecstasy (MDMA), psilocybin and marijuana have, for decades, been designated as drugs of abuse. But they had their origins in the medical pharmacopeia. Through the mid-1960s, more than 1,000 scientific publications chronicled the ways that LSD could be used as an aid to make psychotherapy more effective. Similarly, MDMA began to be used as a complement to talk therapy in the 1970s. Marijuana has logged thousands of years as a medicament for diseases and conditions ranging from malaria to rheumatism.

National laws and international conventions put a stop to all that. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 declared that these drugs have "no currently accepted medical use" and classified them in the most stringently regulated category of controlled substances: Schedule I. The resulting restrictions create a de facto ban on their use in both laboratories and clinical trials, setting up a catch-22: these drugs are banned because they have no accepted medical use, but researchers cannot explore their therapeutic potential because they are banned. Three United Nations treaties extend similar restrictions to much of the rest of the world.

The decades-long research hiatus has taken its toll. Psychologists would like to know whether MDMA can help with intractable post-traumatic stress disorder, whether LSD or psilocybin can provide relief for cluster headaches or obsessive-compulsive disorder, and whether the particular docking receptors on brain cells that many psychedelics latch onto are critical sites for regulating conscious states that go awry in schizophrenia and depression.

It's time we had a serious discussion about lifting the ban on psychedelic research – and that discussion can only happen if we're open and honest with one another about the real dangers posed by drugs (and, while we're at it, alcohol) .

Additional Reading

"Death by Cannabis?" by David Nutt


"End the Ban on Psychoactive Drug Research" by The Editors at Scientific American