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The number of states that have legalized the recreational use of cannabis has more than doubled in the past five years. A new study finds that between 2017 and 2021, the number of very young children eating edible forms of marijuana increased dramatically, with many children ending up in hospitals.
The study, published Tuesday in the journal Pediatrics, found that just over 200 cases of accidental use of edible cannabis products by children under six were reported in 2017. In 2021, the number rose to 3,054, an increase of 1,375%.
The vast majority of children found the drug in their own homes. While most of the children suffered minor impacts, 22.7% of the exposed children required hospitalization and 8% of them – 573 children – required critical care.
Marit Tweet, an emergency medicine physician at SIU Medicine in Springfield, Illinois, is the study’s lead author. Tweet’s curiosity about the subject was piqued in 2019 when she began a fellowship at the Illinois Poison Control Center.
“The big buzz at the time was that cannabis would be legalized for recreational and adult use on January 1, 2020” in Illinois, he said. State marijuana laws have changed rapidly over the past decade, and the drug is legal for medical use in 37 states and for recreational use in 21 states and Washington, DC
Tweet was curious about how recreational use fared in other places, so he looked at studies from other states that had already legalized the drug. A study in Colorado documented that the number of children ages 10 and younger accidentally exposed to marijuana products increased between 2009 and 2015.
Then Tweet wanted to know if this would happen nationwide as well, as more states legalized the drug. She was most concerned about children 5 years of age and younger, an age particularly vulnerable to accidental poisoning.
“This age group accounts for about 40 percent of all calls to poison centers nationwide,” Tweet says. “They can get into things and you can’t really rationalize with them” about the dangers.
Marijuana edibles are made to look sweet, she adds: “They think it looks like candy and maybe they just want to eat it.”
Tweet and his colleagues analyzed information from the National Poison Data System, which draws on calls to the 55 regional poison centers serving the United States and its territories.
Andrew Monte, an emergency medicine physician at the University of Colorado Hospital, urges parents who suspect their child has eaten an edible to take him to a doctor immediately.
“There are some patients who actually have airway obstruction and have to be in the ICU or wear a ventilator,” says Monte, who was not involved in the study.
Monte says he and his colleagues see these cases in their emergency room several times a month. Colorado was the first state to legalize marijuana for recreational use in 2012.
Dr. Nora Volkow, who heads the National Institute on Drug Abuse, says the study results are concerning.
“It’s not only that there are more poisonings of children who use cannabis, but those uses appear to be more severe,” says Volkow.
The study should also draw attention to how marijuana edibles are packaged and marketed, Volkow says.
“If you’ve ever been curious, go to a dispensary or shop where they sell cannabis products, which of course, being a curious person, I did,” Volkow says. “And edibles are extremely enticing, in terms of packaging.”
She says parents and caregivers who consume cannabis-infused edibles should store them in child-proof containers and keep them out of the reach of children.