DENVER (MainStreet) It's something Colorado's legalized marijuana industry did not want to see: a college student tried a cannabis edible product and inexplicably jumped to his death.
"It's the kind of tragedy that a lot of us predicted before legalization and, unfortunately, we're going to have a lot more of it," said Dan Caplis, a Denver attorney and AM talk radio personality.
Caplis is leading an on-air campaign to repeal Amendment 64, which made recreational marijuana legal as of January 1. He argues voters have completely overlooked the dangers of the drug, but are now beginning to wisen up as inevitable realities begin to set in.
"There is a groundswell building to repeal it," he said. "It's going to continue to lose support because there are going to be more harms coming from it, large and small."
Less than two and a half months after marijuana's legalization, there was already a tragic case in point: a fatality so bizarre one might think it came from the histrionic 1936 propaganda film "Reefer Madness."
On March 11, 19-year-old college student Levy Thamba plunged to his death from the balcony of a Holiday Inn in Denver.
It is the first time officials have publicly attributed a death to marijuana since the drug was legalized for recreational use on January 1.
Thamba had 7.2 nanograms of THC (the active ingredient in marijuana) per milliliter in his blood. That's more than the 5 nanograms per milliliter applied to impaired driving cases under state law.
Toxicology tests showed no other drugs or alcohol in his system, and Thamba had no known mental health issues, Weiss-Samaras said.
Thamba was an international student who began attending Northwest College in Powell, Wyo. in January. He had come from Kinshasa, a city of 9 million people in the Republic of Congo, Africa.
School officials described him as "a stellar student" and a "very nice person" who "made a lot of friends in a short amount of time." He was studying engineering and advanced math.
He came to Denver with friends on spring break. The autopsy report says he ate marijuana-laced cookies and "soon thereafter exhibited hostile behavior."
His "friends attempted to calm him down," but he "jumped out of bed, went outside the hotel room and jumped over the balcony railing," the autopsy report states.
"He tried it, and then we ended up with a dead kid," said Weiss-Samaras.
Sonny Jackson, a spokesman for the Denver Police, said the products Thamba consumed were purchased by a friend who was of legal age. Police reports don't note which company produced them. Marijuana companies contacted for this story declined to comment on the incident.
Marijuana-infused products make up an estimated 20% to 40% of the market. There is little regulation governing their production, and consumers can't always be sure what they are getting.
The Denver Post's marijuana editor Ricardo Baca recently commissioned a lab to test an assortment of products. He found many that contained a lot more or a lot less THC than advertised.
Even Dixie Elixirs, one of the industry's leading companies, was found to be off. One of its products labeled at 100 milligrams tested at 60. The company's spokesman Joe Hodas said that test results tend to vary from lab to lab, but he added the company is focused on quality control.
Dr. Christian Thurstone, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado Denver, says there's a strong association between marijuana use and psychosis.
"Increasingly, we are contacted by parents, desperate to learn more," he writes on his blog. "Their typical and tragic messages go something like this: "We never knew. We thought marijuana wasn't even addictive and that it was less harmful than alcohol. Why did nobody tell us?"
He cites dozens of studies that demonstrate the link, including recent research from Northwestern University that shows heavy pot use by teens can result in "abnormal brain structure," "poor working memory" and even "schizophrenia-related brain abnormalities."
"The study links the chronic use of marijuana to these concerning brain abnormalities that appear to last for at least a few years after people stop using it," said Matthew Smith, an assistant research professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. "With the movement to decriminalize marijuana, we need more research to understand its effect on the brain."
The paper was published December 16 in the Schizophrenia Bulletin.
Anecdotally, there've been a handful of exceptionally violent crimes in the news committed by known marijuana users having what appear to be psychotic episodes. For instance, Rudy Eugene, who made the news for chewing off a man's face, was found to have only marijuana in his system, according to the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner.
Jared Lee Loughner, accused of shooting former Congress woman Gabrielle Giffords, has been described as a "pot-smoking loner." And James Holmes, who faces trial for murdering 12 people in the Aurora, Colo. Theater shooting, was also reportedly using pot.
Does marijuana cause psychosis, or do people prone to psychosis use marijuana? The question requires more research as marijuana becomes an increasingly more popular and legalized drug.
Many studies have shown marijuana to be relatively safe, and Thamba's death could be considered an anomaly against the backdrop of millions of others who smoke pot without suffering any sort of psychotic episode.
Caplis, however, argues the negative effects of legalization are just beginning to manifest.
"Any state that legalizes marijuana is going to have more dead people and more ruined kids, and more harm than they had before," he said.
--Written by Al Lewis for MainStreet