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Cannabis now No. 2 factor in non-natural drug deaths in county

Jul 30, 2017 By Katie Roenigk, Staff Writer

The legalization of recreational cannabis in Colorado may have led to an increase in use of the substance locally, Fremont County Coroner Mark Stratmoen said this month.

During a report to the Fremont County Commission, Stratmoen talked about "the change in public acceptance" of cannabis, which might explain the drug's involvement in more non-natural deaths this year.

For the first time since his office began tracking such statistics in 2005, Stratmoen said cannabis has surpassed prescription medication as the second-most common drug involved in non-natural deaths.

Alcohol remains No. 1.

Related, not caused

During the first half of 2017, Stratmoen said drugs and/or alcohol were involved in more than three-quarters of non-natural deaths in Fremont County, including six of seven homicides, four of five suicides and 16 of 18 accidental deaths.

Separated by substance, Stratmoen said, alcohol was involved in 20 of the 30 non-natural deaths so far this year, with 12 involving cannabis and four involving prescription drugs.

He clarified that the non-natural deaths involving drugs and alcohol were not necessarily caused by the substances. Instead, he said, the deaths are considered "related" to alcohol or drug use.

"The death is related to whatever substance you're under the influence (of)," he said, adding, "if it's a high enough level."

For example, a death involving a person whose blood-alcohol content was only .03 would not be considered to be alcohol-related, Stratmoen said. The same is true if the level of cannabis is below a certain point.

"If you were below what the accepted standard for being under the influence of cannabis is ... I don't report that either," he said. "I treat it the same way."

Standards

Stratmoen uses the same standards as Colorado for cannabis intoxication.

He said the information came from the National Institutes of Health, which collected numerous studies on cannabis conducted throughout the United States and in other countries and combined the results to come up with an average national standard.

"That standard may change - just as alcohol (laws have) changed over the years - depending on new studies," Stratmoen said. "(But) you have to go by what the standards are."

For now, the NIH and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration consider people to be impaired by cannabis use if they have more than 5 nanograms per milliliter of Delta-9 THC - the short-term, most active metabolite of the drug cannabis - in their system.

Delta-9 THC shows up 6-9 minutes after cannabis is ingested and only lasts about 2 hours.

"That's the most psychoactive of the metabolites," Stratmoen said.

Other THC metabolites stay in the system longer, including Delta-9 Carboxy THC and 11-Hydroxy Delta-9 THC.

Those typically are not considered when determining whether a death was cannabis related, Stratmoen said, describing one as "not so psychoactive," while the other "has no psychoactive properties."

Driving deaths

There have been no documented cases of drug overdoses directly attributed to cannabis, Stratmoen said, but people can still be too impaired by the drug to drive.

His statistics show that eight of the 12 cannabis-related, non-natural deaths recorded thus far in 2017 involved a driver who was under the influence of cannabis. He noted, however, that all of those deaths involved only two separate incidents.

One took place June 3 on 17 Mile Road south of Riverton and resulted in five deaths. The driver of one of the vehicles involved in the crash was under the influence of alcohol (BAC .164) and cannabis (4.5 ng/ml of delta-9 THC).

"She had alcohol and a high level of cannabis in combination," Stratmoen said. "Studies say that's just as bad or worse."

Three people died in a two-vehicle crash March 14 on Wyoming Highway 789 about two miles north of Lander. A driver in that incident had more than 50 ng/ml of Delta-9 THC in his system.

"I don't care how much you like cannabis or not ... you can't be driving like that," Stratmoen said. "It doesn't matter what substance you're under the influence of - it'll still get you killed. ... It's simply ludicrous to think you can get extremely intoxicated on THC and drive normally. That's just stupid."

Opinion

Despite his criticism of driving while under the influence of cannabis, Stratmoen said he is in favor of legalizing the drug in some forms to treat certain medical ailments, as long as studies show the treatment is effective.

"I'm not against that whatsoever," Stratmoen said.

He also believes cannabis should be removed from the Schedule I level of the Controlled Substances Act.

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, Schedule I drugs have no currently accepted medical use and have a high potential for abuse.

Other drugs on the list include heroin, LSD, ecstasy and peyote.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says that, since cannabis is a Schedule I controlled substance, use of the drug in clinical trials requires special licensure and registration requirements for the investigator and the site where the study will be conducted.

Those restrictions make it more difficult to learn more about cannabis, Stratmoen pointed out.

"I think it should be taken off of being the top tier Schedule I so people can do more research (and) get more accurate information," he said. "You can still have it be a controlled substance, but not up there with heroin."

He is against full legalization, he said, mostly because he sees the results of "the cavalier attitude" people seem to have toward cannabis, which is believed to be more potent currently than it was in the past.

"I may have agreed with (legalization) when I was in college in the '70s, but this is not your grandmother's ditch weed that's out there," Stratmoen said. "They have such highly refined stuff, what they call wax and some of the other oils and that sort of stuff - you aren't talking about just smoking a doobie here. You're talking about a highly concentrated, refined product."

He likened it to the difference between coca leaves and concentrated cocaine.

"My concern is with the refinements, not necessarily with the gross plant," Stratmoen said. "I'm seeing the results of improper usage of the highly refined product."

There have been 13 vehicular deaths so far this year in Fremont County - 11 more than in the first half of 2016. All of the deaths were drug and/or alcohol related, Stratmoen said.

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2017-10-22

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