The Dangers of Marijuana Edibles for Young People

By Laura Stack

Art continues to accurate imitate life. In a recent episode of a popular television series, the son of the main character—a high school student—is self-medicating after his father dies. He suffers repeated hallucinations, and at one point, a minor psychotic break. His drug of choice? Marijuana gummies.

While the show is set in Canada, it reflects an issue that’s also begun to plague the U.S. in states where recreational marijuana use is now legal. Young people, from toddlers to adolescents, have begun accidentally poisoning themselves with marijuana in increasing numbers.

The TV character mentioned above was mostly controlling his use but overdid it. But some users often don’t realize how potent even the smallest marijuana edibles are. For example, you might think eating a single marijuana cookie is safe, but that’s not the case for the unwary user. Today’s high-octane pot can make what people consider a single snack the equivalent of four or five joints, even more. One young man died in Colorado in 2014 after he ate one commercially prepared marijuana cookie, which he didn’t realize contained six “servings.”

Hardly Harmless

Though such deaths are exceedingly rare, overloads can easily strike down an adult with marijuana toxicity, which includes such symptoms as rapid heartbeat, anxiety, paranoia, extreme confusion, nausea, and vomiting. For young people, other known effects that may result from even a small amount of marijuana include the possibility of brain damage, anxiety and panic attacks, psychosis, and depression.

Those are just the indirect deaths; indirect deaths and injuries due to everything from intoxicated driving to ingestion of pesticides and heavy metals in tainted pot have skyrocketed. In any case, legalization of marijuana has led to significant publish health damage and costs. In Colorado alone, emergency room visits due to increased marijuana use—including accidental ingestion by children— have increased exponentially.

The Rising Crisis

Keep in mind that marijuana toxicity can be much worse for a child. In toddlers, marijuana overdoses can lead to comas and breathing difficulties.

Edible marijuana comes in many forms attractive to children, including candies, sodas, baked goods (cookies, brownies, cupcakes, etc.), and even ice cream. Worse, it produces longer-lasting highs than most pot products. It typically takes 30 minutes to an hour for marijuana edibles to take effect, and the high lasts 3-4 hours after consumption. The lag-time for the effect to start can also contribute to overdosing, since the product won’t make the child feel bad immediately.

In France, where marijuana was illegal as of 2017—but which also has the highest incidence of drug use in Europe—emergency room doctors observed a 13-fold increase in the incidence of cannabis toxicity among toddlers from 2004-2014.­ In U.S. in the last eight years, we’ve also seen a spike of childhood marijuana overdoses, poison center calls, and emergency room visits, from toddlers on up. For example, cannabis-related poison calls for kids from infancy through age 19 in Massachusetts have doubled since legalization, based on statistics collected from 2009-2016. In Maine, calls about children accidentally ingesting marijuana in the same age group rose 160% from 2016-2018. Admittedly, the actual numbers remain quite low (less than 200 total in both cases), but the fact remains that, more and more often, a dangerous drug is getting into the hands and mouths of little ones who don’t know better.

Marijuana poisoning rates might be lower than for other dangerous substances, but let’s not let these occurrences get lost in the statistics just because they’re not opioids or psychedelics. Plus, consider the fact that these statistics represent only the reported cases. How many children have had to suffer because their caregivers didn’t notice, didn’t want to get in trouble, thought it was funny, or dismissed pot as a non-dangerous or even “natural” substance?

Who’s to Blame?

While the ultimate responsibility belongs to the caregivers of the children involved, in an indirect sense, I believe this rise in marijuana overdoses among children can be laid at the feet of the edible marijuana industry. In almost every case of accidental overdosing among children, the culprit has been edible marijuana products. Kids just don’t know better—and often, their caregivers prove reckless and unwise about how they handle their marijuana edibles.

Manufacturers avoid accusations of irresponsibility by placing the standard serving sizes on the packages. Fine, if someone remembers to check or can check. If adults can fail to realize a sixth of a cookie is the recommended dose, then how is a child who can’t read or tell the difference between a marijuana cookie and a real one going to know better than to sneak a “treat”?

The Danger is Real

During my research for this article, I was struck by just how often authors assumed it was acceptable for parents of small children to bring edible marijuana products into their homes. Their advice was typically the common-sense kind we all forget sometimes: never leave the products out where the kids can get them, don’t keep them in the pantry or refrigerator, never keep them with other treats or products kids love to eat, and hide them somewhere the kids can’t get to. It’s good advice, but it shouldn’t be necessary. If you care about your child’s health, then why are you bringing drugs home? It’s simply dangerous, just like having a loaded gun at home. When the child is old enough to understand what the “treats” are, it sets a bad example.

And consider this: how many times have your children found their Christmas presents well in advance? Kids are pretty ingenious about locating things they aren’t supposed to, and they will find your “goodie” stash.

You also have to take into account other adults in your life who may takes a less stringent attitude toward hiding their drugs. If you leave your child with someone else, say for a date night, make sure you either absolutely know they (a) won’t let a stranger into the house without your permission while your child is there; and (b) don’t use or eat marijuana treats or have them on their person. If they do, all it takes is a spilled purse or pilfered backpack for your child to get ahold of something they shouldn’t. Also leave firm instructions that (aside from OTC remedies) no drugs are allowed in any form, including pot edibles.

It doesn’t matter if the person in question is a babysitter, one of your older children, a niece or nephew, brother or sister, or grandparents. Make sure they understand your concern about marijuana edibles, because your child’s life may depend on it.

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