Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

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Thursday, April 3, 2014

Months into state experiment, first death officially linked to marijuana legalization in Colorado

As reported in this Denver Post article, headlined "Denver coroner: Man fell to death after eating marijuana cookies," it appears that at least one fatality can now be directly linked to "legalized" marijuana use and abuse in Colorado.   Here are the basics:

A college student visiting Denver jumped to his death from a hotel balcony after eating marijuana-infused cookies, according to a coroner's report that marks the first time authorities have publicly linked a death to marijuana since legal sales of recreational cannabis began in Colorado.

Levy Thamba, a 19-year-old student at Northwest College in Powell, Wyo., died last month at a Holiday Inn in northeast Denver.  On Wednesday, the Denver coroner released a report concluding that Thamba's death was caused by "multiple injuries due to a fall from height."  The coroner also listed "marijuana intoxication" from cannabis-infused cookies as a significant condition contributing to the death. The report classifies the death as an accident.

A brief summary of the investigation that was included in the autopsy report says Thamba, also known as Levi Thamba Pongi, traveled to Denver with three friends on spring break. On March 11, the report says, Thamba consumed "marijuana cookies" and "soon thereafter exhibited hostile behavior (pulling items off the walls) and spoke erratically."

"The decedent's friends attempted to calm him down and were temporarily successful," the report states. "However, the decedent eventually reportedly jumped out of bed, went outside the hotel room, and jumped over the balcony railing." Thamba and his friends were staying on the hotel's fourth floor, according to the report.

Michelle Weiss-Samaras, a spokeswoman for the coroner's office, said the office often lists alcohol intoxication as a significant contributing factor in a death — for instance, in an alcohol-related car accident. She said the office also has seen cases involving apparent marijuana-impaired driving, but she said she believes this is the first time it has listed marijuana intoxication from an edible product in such a way.

Weiss-Samaras said Thamba had no known physical or mental-health issues, and toxicology tests for other drugs or alcohol came back negative. "We have no history of any other issues until he eats a marijuana cookie and becomes erratic and this happens," she said. "It's the one thing we have that's significant."

According to the autopsy report, Thamba's marijuana concentration in his blood was 7.2 nanograms of active THC per milliliter of blood. In impaired driving cases, state law sets a standard of 5 nanograms per milliliter at which juries can presume impairment.

In January, Colorado became the first state in the country to allow people 21 and over to legally buy marijuana for any purpose from regulated stores.  Weiss-Samaras said investigators believe a friend of Thamba's purchased the cookies in a recreational marijuana store. "We were told they came here to try it," she said....  It remains unclear how much of the marijuana-infused product Thamba consumed or how long after consuming it that he died.  

Marijuana edibles — which account for 20 to 40 percent of overall sales, industry experts estimate — have been controversial in Colorado, and the legislature will likely take up the issue again this session.  Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, said he and Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont, plan to introduce a bill as early as this week that would further cap the potency of edibles and prohibit them from being made in forms that might appeal to children.

This story is already getting coverage in national newspapers, and it will now be interesting to see whether and how opponents of marijuana reform might actively use this sad development in support of their arguments against reform efforts.   Notably, at age 19, Levy Thamba was technically underage and thus his recreation marijuana use was not legal.  But that fact itself reinforces the arguments of opponents of marijuana reform that legalization makes it easier and more likely that underage persons will have access and be eager to try marijuana products.

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/marijuana_law/2014/04/months-into-state-experiment-first-death-officially-linked-to-marijuana-legalization-in-colorado.html

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