Media reports that a 31-year-old woman died of "cannabis poisoning" have doctors and marijuana industry insiders questioning the diagnosis. (Cyrus McCrimmon, Denver Post file)

Reaction to Gemma Moss’ “cannabis poisoning” postmortem

International media are reporting that the Oct. 28, 2013 death of 31-year-old Gemma Moss of Boscombe, England, was a result of “cannabis poisoning.”

The controversial announcement would make Moss — who is purported to have smoked half a joint before going to bed the night of her death — the first fatality of marijuana in Britain, the agencies said.

The BBC and the Daily Mail among others are reporting that after three months of “extensive” tests, authorities are saying Moss died of marijuana toxicity and “it is thought she may have suffered a cardiac arrest triggered by the drug,” according to the BBC.

Friday, Jan. 31, 2014 cover of the Metro UK newspaper
The cover of the Friday, Jan. 31, 2014 edition of the United Kingdom newspaper Metro (Jeremy Weber, Special to The Cannabist)

But doctors and marijuana industry insiders are questioning the diagnosis.

“There’s been no history of any verified reports of a death from cannabis ever, in 5,000 years of history,” Dr. Alan Shackelford, the founder and principal physician of Amarimed of Colorado, which evaluates patients for medical marijuana usage, told The Cannabist on Friday. “Cannabis can cause an increased heart rate, and there’s a possibility that it could cause a problem with someone with a pre-existing heart disease — for example, somebody with an elevated heart rate. But there’s no known dose of cannabis that could kill a human.”

Shackelford has consulted various state and national governments on medical marijuana, from Colorado to Israel. He’ll soon travel to New Zealand to advise on the subject. He said that perhaps there was an adulteration or another element involved in Moss’ death, though the British tests didn’t reveal anything of the sort, according to the media reports.

“We see unexplained deaths not infrequently,” Shackelford continued. “The cannabis is a red herring and an incidental finding. It’s most likely some sort of cardiac arrhythmia that was not caused by a physical abnormality that would have been observable at autopsy. But there have been no reports that I’m familiar with of cannabis causing any cardiac arrhythmia.

“I have no idea what caused her death, but I can say with near-100 percent certainty that it wasn’t the cannabis that killed her.”

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Shackelford isn’t alone in his thinking. The federal government’s National Institute on Drug Abuse has answered the question, “Can you overdose and die from marijuana?” The institute said, “The answer is no, it’s not very likely.”

The New York Daily News contacted various East Coast doctors to inquire about the findings.

“From half a joint? That’s ridiculous,” Dr. Yasmin Hurd, professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, told the Daily News.

“It would be very, very, very unlikely to get a lethal dose of the marijuana if wasn’t adulterated with something,” Dr. Bradley Flansbaum, a hospitalist at Lenox Hill Hospital, told the Daily News.

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