Twenty-one states have now legalized recreational marijuana and edibles. Brightly colored candies, gummies, and even cookies that contain high levels of THC are becoming increasingly common in homes all over the country. The number of children who accidentally consumed pot edibles rose dramatically last year, according to a study of national poison control data in the journal Pediatrics. There were 3,054 reported incidents of accidental intoxication in 2021, compared to just 207 in 2017, a 1,375% increase.
Health experts say parents and caregivers should take their child to a doctor right away if they believe they may have accidentally ingested a pot edible. As these cases become more common, Dr. Marit Tweet, an emergency medicine doctor, has been researching how these incidents can affect children under the age of five.
She says that is the age when many children start exploring their surroundings. “They can get into things. And you can’t really rationalize with them, hey, you shouldn’t get into this,” Tweet told NPR. “This might be dangerous to you. They think it looks like candy, and they want to eat it.”
Most of the kids found the edibles in their own home. The health effects were mostly mild, but around one in five children needed to be hospitalized. The most common side effect reported was central nervous system depression, which can include fatigue, drowsiness, lethargy, and lack of coordination.
Dr. Andrew Monte, an emergency medicine doctor at University of Colorado Hospital, said he has treated several cases of accidental marijuana consumption in the ER.
“There are some patients that actually have airway obstruction and need to be in the ICU or put on a ventilator,” he said.
Tweet found that a significant minority of children had to be admitted to the ICU.
“So, it’s not just the issue that there are more poisons of children consuming cannabis but that those consumptions appear to be more serious,” said Dr. Nora Volkow directs the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Volkow says parents and caregivers need to enjoy recreational edibles responsibly to make sure they stay out of the hands of children. She suggests putting the edibles in a child-proof container where they won’t see the packaging.
Kevin Osterhoudt, a toxicologist and the medical director of the Poison Control Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said the trend has been getting worse in recent years.
“For doctors that worked from the year 2000 to the year 2015, it was pretty unusual to ever see children poisoned by cannabis edibles,” Osterhoudt said. “And in 2015, they started to see these cases, and now they’re just becoming more common all the time.”
He said edibles are getting stronger, which increases the risk of physical impairment.
“There used to be an old adage that you can’t overdose on marijuana,” Osterhoudt said. “But what we’re seeing, especially with young children, with these huge doses, is occasionally they don’t breathe very well.”
In the report published in Pediatrics, 3% of cases included respiratory depression, fewer than 1% of patients required ventilation, and nearly 2% had seizures. “Those are pretty significant events,” Osterhoudt said.
Varun Vohra, director of the Michigan Poison & Drug Information Center at Wayne State University School of Medicine, says that once a child consumes an edible, “there’s no silver bullet or antidote that specifically reverses the pharmacological effects of THC.” The medical staff will monitor their condition and supply additional fluids or oxygen if needed until the edible has metabolized.