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A Cautionary Tale of Laced Cannabis and Overdose Deaths

December 2, 2020 11:37 am ET
A Cautionary Tale of Laced Cannabis and Overdose Deaths

The last few months have seen significant gains for the state of Virginia on the road to full cannabis legalization. Last July, Governor Ralph Northam (D) signed into law a new bill decriminalizing low-level cannabis possession. The new law substantially reduced penalties. Before its passage, possession of even a small amount of cannabis could result in a $500 fine, a sentence of 30 days in jail, and a long term criminal record. Under the new law, however, an ounce of cannabis became punishable by a simple $25 fine, with no threat of jail time or a criminal record. In September, Virginia took another step forward. The House of Delegates approved a measure to reduce penalties against those caught with pipes, papers, and other paraphernalia in their car. The new measure would also prevent searches and seizures by police based only on smell as evidence, something that has already been prohibited in other states.

Just last month, Washington D.C. passed a law that would allow medical cannabis patients in Virginia to purchase their cannabis within the District. This is good news because although medical cannabis for qualified patients is legal in Virginia, it remains difficult to come by as the medical program kicks into gear. This new law in D.C. makes cannabis more accessible to Virginians. But on the heels of all this good news for Virginians comes some very bad news. Four people in Prince William County, Virginia, have recently experienced overdoses, and one of those overdoses has led to a death.

Can You Actually Overdose on Cannabis?

It is extremely important to separate fact from myth when it comes to things like this. An overdose is simply taking more than what is medically recommended and despite the popular belief, not all overdoses are fatal. THC does cause intoxication and you can overdose in the same sense that you can overdose or take too much of just about anything. It’s possible to take an overdose, for example, of vitamin C. However, such a thing is extremely unlikely, and if it should happen, the effects would be uncomfortable but not be fatal.

An overdose of THC would cause significant intoxication and discomfort. Luckily, you can counteract an intense high with a few recommended methods. You might experience a racing heart, increased anxiety, headaches, dizziness, dry eyes, fatigue, or confusion. In extreme cases, mild hallucinations, panic attacks, and nausea or vomiting are possible. All cannabis consumers have likely experienced this as finding the right therapeutic dose is largely based on the individual’s own trial and error of under and overdosing. But a THC overdose will not kill you like an overdose of other illicit drugs. According to the National Cancer Institute,

Because cannabinoid receptors, unlike opioid receptors, are not located in the brainstem areas controlling respiration, lethal overdoses from cannabis and cannabinoids do not occur.”

Since a THC overdose is non-lethal, officials in Virginia believe that the cannabis that caused the ill effects was in fact laced with something else. The three victims who survived were treated effectively with Narcan® which indicates that the culprit behind all of this was an opiate.

How Can You Tell if Your Cannabis Has Been Tampered With?

Legalization diminishes the threat of buying laced cannabis since it’s much easier to track the supply chain of legal weed. However, there are a few things you should watch out for.

  • A chemical scent. If your products smell pungently unnatural, or plasticky, that’s a warning sign that it’s been laced with something. Some products naturally produce a gas or diesel aroma but anything that smells like strong varnish or rubbing alcohol should be put down immediately. 
  • Sparking. Your products definitely should not spark when you light up. If you’re seeing regular sparks, set it down.
  • Numbness. If you experience a physical sensation of numbness or a bitter tingly taste when you smoke, your cannabis might be laced with PCP or cocaine. 

Laced cannabis is uncommon, particularly if you know where your herb is coming from. If you’re regularly obtaining it from the same source without issue, you’re unlikely to have a problem. But it’s still wise to keep your eyes and nose open. The best way to ensure that you never encounter cannabis laced with another drug is to completely stay off the illicit market and purchase through legal channels.

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