Lead-Tainted Marijuana Poisons Users

Drug experts say the case underscores the dangers of drug use.

ByABC News
January 8, 2009, 12:11 AM

Apr. 10, 2008 — -- Reports of German pot smokers sustaining severe lead poisoning from tainted marijuana suggests that illicit drug users may be getting a lot more than just a high from the substances they abuse, health experts warn.

The cases, documented in an article in the current issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, involve 29 young adults, ages 16 to 33, who were hospitalized in Leipzig, Germany, with lead poisoning during a period of several months.

While doctors were initially baffled by the rash of poisonings, they eventually determined that all had smoked marijuana that had been tainted with small lead particles.

"The current working hypothesis of the police is that because of its high specific gravity and inconspicuous grayish color, lead was used to increase the weight of street marijuana sold by the gram and thereby maximize profits among dealers," the researchers noted in the article.

And the dividends for dealers were significant. The researchers estimated that adding the lead to the marijuana increased the profit per kilogram by $1,500.

"The medical community, including pediatricians, should consider adulterated marijuana as a potential source of lead intoxication," the researchers wrote.

Though doctors and drug experts in the United States say they are not aware of any similar cases of marijuana-linked lead poisoning in this country, they warn that illicit drugs of all varieties are often mixed with other substances -- many of which can have health effects if ingested.

"It's really quite common for drugs to be cut with less-expensive substances to increase a distributor's or dealer's profits," said Dr. Marcel J. Casavant, chief of pharmacology and toxicology at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. For example, he adds, cocaine is routinely blended with everything from sugars and magnesium salts to talcum powder and even other drugs.

And these mixes often put users at risk.