Debunking Scary Marijuana Headlines 3

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In our third edition, we take a look at an alarming headline by Newsweek, which claims a man's heart attack was caused by the anxiety he experienced from a THC-infused lollipop. But later in the article, the author admits no medical professional drew a causal line between the events... and that the patient was a tobacco smoker with coronary artery disease.

3.Newsweek's Title: "Man Who Ate Marijuana Lollipop Had Heart Attack Caused by Fearful Hallucinations."

BS Rating: 3/5

What this article is about:

Ready for some report-inception? This Newsweek article describes a case study about a medical report, where an older man ate too much THC-infused candy, and later suffered a heart attack. It says the authors of the case study “believe the relatively large amount of THC he consumed triggered frightening visions and anxiety…. Causing a spike in his heartbeat and blood pressure.”

The article says the 70-year old man ingested around 70mg of the intoxicating compound on the advice of a friend, who said it could help with pain. After half an hour, he started having “crushing chest pain” that made him feel “like [he] was dying,” so his family rushed him to the emergency room. He was diagnosed with “non-ST-elevation myocardial infarction” (AKA a heart attack) and was discharged after the symptoms wore off.

The Newsweek article also adds in quotes from a few random medical professionals who had nothing to do with the medical emergency, or the case study on it, and do not have any expertise in cannabinoid science. One is an expert in addiction medicine; another is a nurse who lectures about addiction and mental health. The case study was published in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology. After positing in the title that the heart attack was "caused by" the hallucinations, the article later admits that the THC was never proven to be the cause, but the man did have plenty of other health issues.

Rebuttal:

What's not said

Let’s start at the top. Newsweek’s headline does all the work; it says the man’s heart attack was “caused by fearful hallucinations” after he ate the cannabis lollipop. The word “fearful” is not included in the case study itself, so it appears the Newsweek author deliberately added it to cause alarm.

What’s left out of that headline is crucial to this account, and it’s buried deeper in the writing: the patient was a “70 year old man with stable coronary artery disease,” who “had a history of tobacco use, making any causal conclusions about this health event difficult to make.”

After that fear-mongering headline, the article goes on to admit that “it might be that he would have had this heart problem anyway and the fact he had used a potent form of cannabis was just a coincidence.” But that wouldn't make for a very click-worthy title. Is there a correlation between THC and heart attacks? Looks like it, yes. Did anyone establish causation in this case? No.

An Unusual Instance Becomes A Cautionary Tale

Despite the patient being a tobacco smoker, and being on other medication for coronary artery disease, the Newsweek author reports on this rare incident as if the doctors concluded that THC solely and directly caused his heart attack.

I’m not trying to say that cannabis cannot (or did not) cause secondary medical issues. It has been previously documented that people who overuse THC edibles can suffer side effects like paranoia, anxiety, and heart racing, which can lead to symptoms like sweating and spiked blood pressure. Several medical professionals caution that eventually, those symptoms could prompt a heart attack, especially in older people with heart troubles. However, they also say “these effects appear to be compounded by cigarette smoking,” which we know that was a factor for the man in this case study.

But this Newsweek article isn’t about reporting accurately on the likelihood of a heart attack happening after cannabis consumption. It’s about sensationalism. The author is not trying to look into whether the recommended dose of cannabis can cause heart attacks in a generally healthy population.

The writer has instead chosen to magnify an unusual report of an older smoker with serious heart problems, who took about twenty times the recommended dose of THC. By using this worst case scenario as a cautionary tale, this article can mislead readers into assuming that heart attacks are an inevitable outcome for older pot-lollipop eaters.

If you read on, an addiction specialist later comments that the case study findings were “limited” by the fact the man was older, had heart-related health conditions, and took an “unsafe dose” of THC. Deep down in the article, we see the lead doctor’s advice for the patient; “abstain from consuming similar quantities in the future.” Note that the patient is not told to swear off marijuana. In fact, the doctor freely admits “marijuana can be a useful tool for many patients, especially for pain and nausea relief. At the same time, like all other medications, it does carry risk and side effects.”

There is a noted correlation between this man eating cannabis candy and having a heart attack. However, the attending doctors did not determine cannabis was the cause of the heart attack. It seems the author of this article could have chosen a more appropriate and less fear-inducing headline. Perhaps something like “Doctors Advise Older Adults With Pre-Existing Health Issues Who Use Medical Marijuana To Stick To Recommended Doses.” But instead they chose an alarming and frightening click-bait title. For that misinterpretation, and the burying of facts, this gets a BS rating of 3/5.

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