More than half of states in the U.S. now allow the medical use of marijuana, and eight states plus the District of Columbia have legalized it for recreational use. But researchers are identifying a potential downside (though a correctable one) to the increasing legal availability of the drug: a spike in cases of children accidentally ingesting it.
In a study published in 2016 in JAMA Pediatrics, for example, researchers in Colorado—which has allowed medical marijuana for more than a decade and recreational marijuana since 2014—looked at data from visits to Children’s Hospital Colorado among children ages infant to 9 years between 2009 and 2015. They also examined evaluations at a regional poison center in the state during the same time period.
According to the data, both the children’s hospital and the poison center saw significant increases in marijuana exposure cases between 2009 and 2015—primarily through ingestion, especially of edible forms of marijuana like baked goods and candies. (Children were also exposed through the skin and in a few cases through directly inhaling marijuana.) At the children’s hospital, 62 patients who were evaluated for marijuana exposure between 2009 and 2015 met criteria for inclusion in the study. The annual number of exposure cases rose during that time from a single case in 2009 to 16 cases in 2015. And the poison-center data showed a five-fold increase in marijuana exposure between 2009 and 2015, from nine cases in 2009 to 47 cases in 2014. The median age of those exposed was about two years old.
The majority of cases the researchers analyzed resulted in minor or no health effects. But 14 percent of children had moderate or severe effects such as agitation, racing heartbeat, respiratory depression, low blood pressure, or seizures. There was one reported death, in an 11-month old infant.
The study’s researchers note that while marijuana exposure represents only a very small fraction of all accidental exposures to substances among children in Colorado, it often presents with more severe symptoms than other, more common household ingestions. In fact, 35 percent of all children presenting to the hospital for exposure to marijuana had to be admitted for care. The American Academy of Pediatrics has opposed marijuana legalization precisely because of the potential health risks that marijuana exposure poses to children and adolescents.
Protecting kids from pot
Public health experts have suggested various preventive measures to ensure that children who live in or visit homes where marijuana is present cannot access it. Perhaps the most successful deterrent is child-resistant packaging, which is required in at least four states. But even if marijuana is safely packaged, it should also be stored properly—meaning out of sight and reach of children (and for older children or teenagers, in a locked container that they cannot open). Experts are also focusing on interventions to help protect the pediatric population from prenatal and breastfeeding marijuana exposure and exposure to secondhand marijuana smoke.
Marijuana is a psychoactive drug that comes from the cannabis plant. It is primarily made up of two compounds: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidol (CBD). While both THC and CBD are being studied as potential treatments for a number of serious health conditions, including AIDS wasting, epilepsy, neuropathic pain, and chemotherapy-induced nausea—and a synthetic form of THC is used in two drugs approved by the FDA to reverse weight loss in people with AIDS—marijuana is currently not approved by the FDA.
As of late 2017, “medical marijuana” was legal, in some form, in 29 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, and Puerto Rico. Medical marijuanarefers to the use of the entire unprocessed marijuana plant, or its extracts, to treat a range of symptoms or conditions. Eight states and the District of Columbia have now legalized recreational marijuana, with several other states considering passing such legislation in 2018.
Also see More Teens Using E-Cigarettes, Marijuana.