Marijuana Use Might Boost Heart Risk in Some Women, SF Medical Examiner's Office Toxicologist Warns

Chief forensic toxicologist sees an increased risk of death for women with an enlarged heart who use cannabis

By Joe Rosato Jr.
|  Friday, Nov 29, 2013  |  Updated 7:08 PM PDT
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California’s medical marijuana movement has exploded in popularity over the last 10 years. But some wonder, just how safe is it and what are the health risks? Joe Rosato Jr. reports.

California’s medical marijuana movement has exploded in popularity over the last 10 years. But some wonder, just how safe is it and what are the health risks? Joe Rosato Jr. reports.

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California’s medical marijuana movement has exploded in popularity over the last 10 years. But some wonder, just how safe is it and what are the health risks?

One San Francisco doctor is finding answers in the deceased.

Like the endless strains and hybrids filling the medical marijuana market, users now come from all ages and walks of life. But Dr. Nikolas Lemos isn’t interested so much in the lives as he is in the deaths.

For the past 10 years, Lemos has served as chief forensic toxicologist at the San Francisco medical examiner's office.

“We’ve been screening for cannabis in all our decedents,” Lemos said.

With every death, the department runs tests looking for traces of alcohol and medications, including marijuana.

“In any type of case we get to see cannabis, whether it’s homicide or suicide or natural deaths, we see cannabis,” Lemos said.

A review of more than 1,000 cases over a year-long period found 8 percent of those examined tested positive for marijuana, the East Bay Express reported.

Through the research he’s compiled, Lemos sees patterns that concern him, especially in cases of women over 40 who have a condition known as an enlarged heart.

“Enlarged heart and cannabis use in women has been shown by our research to have statistically more greater chances of causing death,” Lemos said.

He believes, like any drug, cannabis should come with a warning.

“We may need to evaluate the possibility of using a black box warning about cardiac conditions and the use of cannabis,” Lemos said.

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But Dr. Eugene Schoenfeld, a psychiatrist who has spent his career studying the effects of drugs, isn’t convinced by Lemos’s theory.

“There’s been a lot of research looking into the possible harmful effects of marijuana,” Schoenfeld said. “There’s been thousands of studies which have not found harmful effects of that kind.”

While there are no rules requiring medical cannabis to carry a warning, some dispensaries have created their own.

“It’s true, medical cannabis should come with warning labels,” said Kevin Reed, owner of San Francisco’s Green Cross medical cannabis dispensary.

Reed says every new member gets a fact sheet listing potential cannabis side effects, including heart issues.

“In great detail, we warn people about if they’re taking other medications to talk to their doctors first,” Reed said.

“We are hoping that prescribing physicians as well as patients will use this medication or prescribe this medication after having their heart evaluated for possible risks,” Lemos said.

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The medical examiner’s office has even begun to list “marijuana intoxication” as the cause of death on some death certificates.

Despite that, Lemos calls marijuana a safe drug with many medical benefits -- just not for everyone.

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