By Amy Norton
Health Day Reporter
TUESDAY, Jan. 3, 2023 (HealthDay News) — As more states legalize marijuana, the number of preschoolers accidentally eating cannabis “edibles” is also increasing, a new study shows.
In the last five years, U.S. poison control centers have seen a whopping 14-fold increase in calls about teens getting their hands on marijuana edibles.
In 2017, only 207 cases were reported nationwide. By 2021 there were over 3,000.
None of the incidents were fatal, and many children experienced mild symptoms such as excessive sleepiness. But 36% were treated in an emergency room, and nearly 23% required hospitalization.
Experts said the results were published in the journal on Jan. 3 pediatrics, Highlight a new household safety hazard.
Not only are marijuana edibles now widely available, but they come in forms like gummy bears and cannabis “candies” that young children can’t resist, said lead researcher Dr. Marit tweet.
“You can’t tell a toddler, ‘Don’t eat those gummies,'” said Tweet, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.
According to the tweet, the most visible signs of marijuana poisoning in an adolescent are often related to central nervous system depression.
“It can mean that they’re just not acting right — they’re not reacting the way they normally would,” she said. “Or they’re overly sleepy. You may not be able to wake her up.”
At the extreme end, children can develop breathing difficulties or go into a coma.
It all depends on size – both the size of the child and the dose of THC (the active ingredient in marijuana), said Dr. Vincent Calleo, medical director of the Upstate New York Poison Center in Syracuse.
“The dose makes the poison,” Calleo said. And unfortunately, he noted, marijuana edibles look like any other sweet treat to a kid.
“It’s unlikely that they have the self-control to just eat a jelly bean, and of course they shouldn’t have one,” Calleo pointed out.
The results came as no surprise to Calleo, whose center is among those seeing a sharp rise in calls about children’s exposure to edible foods.
“It really reflects what we’ve seen in upstate New York over the last few years,” he said.
Both Calleo and Tweet stressed another point: the official numbers only reflect reports to regional poison control centers, meaning they’re almost certainly underestimated.
“The reported number is likely much lower than the actual number of children exposed to edibles,” Calleo said.
For the study, Tweet and her colleagues examined data from all 55 regional poison control centers in the United States. They focused on numbers from 2017 to 2021 — a time when marijuana laws were changing rapidly across the country.
As of early 2017, only eight states and Washington, DC legal adults to use recreational marijuana. By May 2022, there were 18 states. Meanwhile, the use of medical marijuana has also expanded, with most US states now allowing it.
Overall, the study found, poison centers saw a 1,375% increase in reports of food contact among children under the age of 6. The majority of these children were 2 or 3 years old.
Almost 15% ended up in hospital, while another 8% became so ill that they were admitted to an intensive care unit.
Both doctors had some advice for parents or other caregivers using edibles:
“I would treat these like any medication you use,” Calleo said.
Tweet noted that unlike tobacco and alcohol, the United States does not have national laws governing the packaging of marijuana products.
Several states have come up short, she noted: some have capped the amount of THC per pack and required edibles to be packaged in opaque wrappers, rather than the brightly colored wrappers that are synonymous with candy in a child’s eyes.
Calleo stressed that any time an adult is concerned that a child has swallowed edibles or other potentially toxic substances, they should contact their regional poison control center for advice.
“We will not judge you,” he said. “Our job is to provide the best possible care.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics has more on preventing marijuana poisoning.
SOURCES: Marit Tweet, MD, Assistant Professor, Emergency Medicine, Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, Springfield; Vincent Calleo, MD, Medical Director, Upstate New York Poison Center and Assistant Professor, Emergency Medicine and Pediatrics, SUNY Upstate Medical University, Syracuse, NY; pediatrics, January 3, 2023 online