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Death by cannabis?

David Nutt      

31st January 2014

(UPDATE 04/02/2014 - The Metro brought balance to their coverage by publishing letters today from Prof. David Nutt (see picture below) and other readers on the subject of the risks of cannabis. The ISCD will continue to make such media interventions where a scientific perspective is needed, but we rely on your continued support to do so. Thanks for your donations; the more we receive the more resources we will be able to dedicate to this aspect of our work.)

Today, the front page headline on the Metro newspaper read "The tragic proof that cannabis can kill". Perhaps this splash might lead to some family conversations about drugs. If so, it would be useful now to consider what the sad case of one young mother who died after smoking cannabis can tell us about the dangers of cannabis. I think the answer is nothing. If this upsetting story does at least prod parents into talking to their kids about drugs I hope they might discuss just how to sceptically evaluate and make use of the information we read in the papers.

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. They erode rather than bolster the potential of individuals and the State to rationally recognise and minimise the real harm drugs can cause. These stories misinform even when the facts are ostensibly ‘true’, because the real names, places and dates are slotted into misleading old fairytales about the essential moral evil of drugs, (which are made animate by the stories), and the essential vulnerability and innocence of those (particularly attractive young women) who passively fall prey to them. The types of drugs, people and harm in these stories are not representative of the real burden drugs cause in society.

I cannot begin to understand the pathologist’s certainty that cannabis killed Gemma Moss, but neither do I wish to contradict him outright. Taking any amount of cannabis, like all drugs, like so many activities, puts some stresses on the body. 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 sportsex, saunas and evenstraining on the toilet

There are good reasons that most of us choose not to use cannabis, and that most of the rest do so infrequently. You can get arrested, some become dependent on it to relax, it can make you cough and wheeze, feel less sharp than you could be, or more anxious, and a cannabis habit can be a barrier to achievement. The risk of sudden cardiac death has no place on the list of sensible reasons to avoid or cut down cannabis use. As with cannabis, there is a long list of reasons someone might want to avoid or cut down on visits to McDonalds for example, but a single freak fatality caused by such a visit is not one of them.

The question of whether cannabis killed one individual may be significant for the family concerned but it is not useful for exploring the essential scientific, political and personal questions about each drug’s capacity to injure and kill. To answer that, you need data from thousands of people, to distinguish harm from freak events. Coincidentally, buried on page 20 of the same edition of the Metro, three lines of text allude to a new study on alcohol that provides a striking example from a study of 151,000 people. It found that one in four Russian men are dead before they reach 55, most of them killed by alcohol.

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