How Many People Have Died From Smoking Marijuana?

Sophia Delphi May 14, 2022 - 8 min read
Fact Checked
Illustration for Marijuana Related Death

Something interesting started happening about 40 years ago.

As you probably know, doctors, hospitals, or coroners always record a cause of death when someone passes away. And all of a sudden, as the anti-smoking movement gained steam, “smoking” began to be listed as an official cause of death. (We’re talking about cigarette smoking here, for the moment.)

In reality, the patients passed away from lung cancer, heart disease, or some other illness that’s directly or indirectly associated with tobacco smoking. However, the medical community apparently determined that people could be convinced to quit smoking if it was specifically and commonly listed as a cause of death.

Don’t get us wrong. Many of those people certainly died prematurely because they had smoked. And we’re not saying that people should smoke cigarettes.

We’re simply making the point that using the word “smoking” on death certificates was used as a scare tactic.

Scare tactics are nothing new. They’ve been used for nearly one hundred years in the continuing effort to scare people away from trying or using cannabis. And the bizarre claim that people have died from weed simply won’t go away.

Here’s the easy answer to debunk the question “how many people have died from weed?” None. Zilch. Zero.

The honest answer, though, is a bit more complicated. Let’s explain.

Why Do People Keep Saying You Can Die From Weed?

Weeds getting cut by scissors

Scare tactics are nothing new to those who enjoy the “demon weed.”

They started in the 1930s with propaganda films like Reefer Madness (which were instrumental in the infamous Marijuana Tax Act that made weed illegal nationwide). And they continued for decades. Pot could make users go crazy, become addicts or it would simply make them stupid. At the very least, marijuana was a “gateway drug” to more dangerous substances.

To a large extent, the scare tactics worked – not necessarily to deter people from smoking up, but to rally enough public support for the government to continue its war on cannabis.

The climate is finally changing, of course. 38 states have legalized medical marijuana, and a growing number have approved the use of weed for recreational purposes. However, a not-insignificant number of people (including lawmakers in numerous states) still push anti-cannabis myths. And from time to time, you still hear the big one: you can die from weed.

Where in the world do they find evidence to support such a bizarre claim?

Some of it is simply made up, needless to say. Some of it, though, is just taking valid information and – just as with using “smoking” as a cause of death – using it improperly to defend a political position.

Let’s look at the supposed deaths caused by weed.

Weed And Heart Failure?

Research published in the journal Forensic Science International in 2014 discussed two sudden deaths that had been supposedly caused by marijuana use, at least according to some reports. The two victims were both healthy men in their 20s, and both were unquestionable, in the terms of medical experts, “under the acute influence of cannabis.”

The study of these deaths was important for two reasons.

First, it found – after an in-depth review – that these were the first two deaths in history that were somewhat credibly blamed on weed.

Second, the study clarified that the two deaths were actually caused by cardiovascular complications, specifically heart failure. The first patient had underlying cardiomyopathy, which “makes a sudden cardiac death highly probable.” The second patient had no heart problems that doctors could find, but the investigation theorized that a long period during which medical professionals tried to resuscitate the patient may have overly stressed his heart.

In both cases, researchers concluded that smoking pot may have increased the patients’ heart rates and blood pressure, making them more susceptible to other cardiac problems. That makes sense since it’s been documented that the risk of heart attack increases by a factor of five in the first hour after smoking weed, but quickly declines after that. The study recommends that those at high risk for heart diseases avoid cannabis use.

Let’s summarize. Even though these two deaths were at first blamed on marijuana use, it wasn’t smoking weed that killed the two patients. The short-term effects of smoking pot just made it more likely that other factors – a pre-existing heart condition or frantic resuscitation attempts – could kill them.

Weed Overdose?

A 2017 case made headlines as a supposed “marijuana overdose death.” In truth, the victim was an 11-month old infant who died of myocarditis, another type of heart problem. The baby apparently consumed a potent dose of weed and went into cardiac arrest.

Clearly, the real story isn’t that the infant died from an “overdose” of weed – it’s that his caregivers made it possible for an 11-month old to get his hands on marijuana and unknowingly ingest it. A baby eating cannabis and dying isn’t a “drug overdose,” as reasonable people understand the term. There’s no “proper dose” of weed for a baby. This was simply a tragic case of adult negligence.

Cannabinoid Hyperemesis Syndrome 

There’s another case to consider. In 2017 and 2018, a 17-year old Indiana teen suffered a recurring, serious problem with nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. It turned out that his kidneys were failing; during his last bout with the problem, he died. The diagnosis was “cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome,” or CMS, which caused kidney failure.

CMS has been documented in a number of daily, long-term cannabis users. In fact, you or someone you know may have experienced an episode of vomiting after smoking up; most likely, that was CMS. However, only a very small percentage of users have this problem, and it’s believed that they may be genetically predisposed to have bad reactions to weed.

The only “treatment” for CMS is to quit using marijuana. Those who don’t – and the teen we mentioned didn’t stop his weed use even after several hospitalizations – could potentially be putting their life at risk.

But once again, smoking weed didn’t cause this patient’s death. It led to a secondary medical condition, CMS, which kept recurring and eventually cost him his life when he didn’t stop smoking.

What’s The Moral Of The Story?

Cannabis has many important medicinal properties. It can also cause medical issues for a small number of people who smoke or consume weed in other ways.

Marijuana use can briefly cause increased heart rate, a concern for those with cardiovascular issues. It can reduce bone density over time, possibly increasing the risk of problems like osteoporosis. Weed smoke can cause damage to the bronchial tract and cause bronchitis and other respiratory problems. And as we’ve mentioned, it can lead to CMS in a small number of people. On rare occasions, a few of those issues may eventually lead to serious illness or even death.

However, even on those rare occasions, the people don’t get sick or die from weed. The other health conditions are what cause their illness and death.

Here’s the moral of the story. If you shouldn’t be smoking weed, don’t. If it starts to cause a health problem, stop. Just don’t blame weed for your problems – because no one has ever died from weed. A few users have died but from other medical causes. Weed is only germane to their cases because they shouldn’t have continued to use it.

How Many People Have Died From Weed? FAQ

Q: So no matter how much weed I smoke, I can’t overdose?
A: Well, that’s not quite accurate. You can certainly smoke too much (“too much” is different for everyone) and end up experiencing undesirable effects, to put it nicely. For example, too much potent weed can cause anxiety or even psychosis in those who are predisposed to mental illness. There’s one documented case in which a college student ate way too much of an edible, experienced psychotic effect, and ended up falling to his death from a hotel railing. Is that an “overdose?” We’ll leave the semantics to you, but it’s an example of how the effects of weed, combined with other medical issues or carelessness, can be dangerous to some people.

Q: Can you die from lung cancer caused by smoking weed?
A: There’s no solid evidence proving that cannabis smoke causes lung cancer, but it’s also not certain that smoking pot poses no cancer risk at all. The best guess is that if there is any risk, it’s a much, much smaller one than the danger of lung cancer posed by cigarette smoking.

Q: Is there any possibility that weed is actually a gateway drug to other drugs that can kill you?
A: There’s been a lot of research on the subject, and there’s no proof that cannabis is a so-called “gateway” drug. It’s true that the majority of hard drug users smoked marijuana first – but that’s not proof of anything; most also drank milk when they were younger. And it’s possible that interactions with other people getting high might provide more opportunity to connect with hard drug users than, say, spending all evening at the library. But as far as the science is concerned, there’s no evidence that using weed naturally leads people into trying other, more dangerous drugs.