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Can Cannabis Be Detected in an Autopsy?

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marijuana in autopsy report

The above question might not be what the average cannabis user wants to be thinking about, but for some reason we are interested and you will be too once we delve in together. An autopsy only comes to play when a person is officially declared dead. It is usually done by a physician, an EMT, or a police medical examiner. An autopsy is a key step that is heavily utilized in the forensic and medical world to determine a wide range of things including any factor that might have played a role in the death of an individual. An autopsy screens for a wide range of substances, but in this article we’ll narrow the focus to marijuana. Is it possible for marijuana to be detected during an autopsy? Read on to find out!

What is done in an autopsy?

It must first be stated that not all dead persons have autopsies after they are declared dead. This is because autopsies are largely done to ascertain the exact cause of death. It is also done to observe the effect of diseases on the body as it leads to death. During an autopsy, experts first determine how long a person has been dead which is known as post-mortem interval. There are different methods that can be used to achieve this which include rigor mortis, insect activity, and a stage of decomposition. The next step is for a pathologist to determine the cause of death by an autopsy which can include removal and examination of organs for signs of cause of death and examination of skin and muscles for physical injury. There are times when there is a need for microscopic examination of cells and tissues and after completion of the entire process, the body is sewn back.

Cannabis testing

A recent study on cannabinoids post-mortem has shown that most toxicological reports do not usually include cannabis screening.  However, there are scenarios when this is not the case. An example is the case of the death of a driver where the possibility of the presence of cannabis is suspected as the cause of the accident. Unfortunately, it is still hard for a post-mortem THC test to determine the accurate intoxication level.

One major factor that affects this test is decomposition. It is hard to use a high level of THC to justify intoxication because when decomposition starts, the level of THC rises. Physiology is also another factor that affects the ability to use THC level for the test of intoxication post-mortem. The major reason is that each person has different variations which play a role in their physical and mental state of being. This makes it worrisome for medical examiners to fully establish cause especially when legal issues are involved.

Another limiting factor to the request for cannabis tests during post-mortem tests is a general agreement within the medical community that marijuana doesn’t kill. The issue of cannabinoids also makes this more unclear because cannabinoids do not distribute in biological systems in a well-defined manner. This culminates into reasons why cannabis testing is not readily inquired during post-mortem tests.

Cannabis Post-Mortem testing

Despite the fact that it is uncommon for cannabis testing to be required for post-mortem tests, it is still not impossible for it to be required. When such tests are ordered, however, they are time-consuming and require an extensive analysis if they are to be done properly. Some of such tests can take days, weeks, and months, though experience on the part of those doing the tests matter.

Post-mortem THC levels

THC is a major cannabinoid of cannabis which is the major target when cannabis tests are being done. however, a special relationship occurs between THC levels after death. A study carried out by assistant toxicologist Andrea Tully shows that THC levels after death are unreliable for determining the cause of death. The study done by Tully characterized and compared the differences between THC levels in living and deceased individuals. Blood was extracted from patients shortly after they had died which is in pristine form as they are fewer bacteria and other organisms that accumulate in the body after a person dies.

The presence of bacteria and other organisms in such blood samples affects the reading of content analysis for such samples. Comparison between blood drawn immediately after death and the ones are drawn afterward shows degradation would have occurred which eventually increases the level of THC. The interpretation of this is that it is not safe to assume that the THC levels as at the time of analysis were the effective THC level during the period of death or the incident that led to death.

What makes THC level increase after death?

It is easy to say that THC levels increases due to decomposition but there is a lot more involved in this process. THC is a lipophilic substance which means that when it is in the blood, it is easily partitioned into different fats that are in the body. The storage of THC and its combination with such fat tissues plays a huge role in the level of the compound in the body. THC metabolites like THC-COOH also linger in the body for extended periods which further increases the unreliability of using tests of THC level in dead persons. 

The importance of proper understanding of the extended stay of THC and its metabolites in the body is needed if testing of patients for cannabinoids after death is to be done. Research done by Lemos and colleagues on comparison between cannabinoid concentration of drivers arrested for DUI offenses and deceased drivers gave a very enlightening discovery. The conclusion of the study was that there was no considerable statistical difference between the concentrations of THC-OH and THC-COOH in the two groups. However, the concentration of THC between both groups is quite different even though they cannot be fully substantiated.

Bottom line

As mentioned earlier, the role of physiology cannot be underplayed when it comes to the issue of THC levels in individuals. This is why the question should not only be centered on ‘if THC can be detected’ but also on ‘what it means’. THC levels can be detected in an autopsy but the THC must be readily correlated with decomposition which is why care must be taken if such inquiries have litigation implications.

 

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