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In the car, on the playground, at grandma’s house – these are just a few of the places young children have accidentally eaten products made with marijuana in recent years. As more states legalize marijuana for medical and recreational use, one often-overlooked consequence is its increased availability to young children. Marijuana edibles, which frequently look and taste no different from substance-free sweets and baked goods, may be especially tempting to kids seeking something to eat.
In our latest report, Childhood Poisoning: Safeguarding Young Children from Addictive Substances, we evaluated data from the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC), among other sources, and found the number of babies and preschoolers exposed to marijuana is on the rise. In fact, between 2006 and 2013, the rate of marijuana exposures among children aged five and younger increased by 148 percent. Moreover, the number of young children accidentally exposed to marijuana increased every year from 2013 through 2016.
In Colorado alone, rates of marijuana exposure in young children increased 150 percent from 2014 to 2016, when the study was published. Half of these exposures involved legal, recreational marijuana.
Edibles, the most likely culprit of marijuana exposures among young children, often contain more THC (the psychoactive part of marijuana) than marijuana in other forms. Furthermore, when compared to adults, children tend to experience more severe clinical effects from marijuana exposure. Effects can range from lethargy, difficulty concentrating and slurred speech to respiratory depression and even seizures.
Through our research, we have found an increase in serious medical outcomes among young children exposed to marijuana.
As additional states consider legalizing marijuana for either medical or recreational purposes, safeguarding children from accidentally ingesting edibles and other marijuana products must be a priority. Parents, physicians, and policymakers all have a role to play in keeping children safe.
For parents: if you own marijuana products or other potentially harmful addictive substances, take steps to ensure your kids are unable to access them. Keep products in child-resistant and opaque packaging (if available), and ensure all addictive substances are kept out of sight and out of reach.
For physicians: stay informed about the symptoms of marijuana exposure and take time to educate parents about what to look for if they suspect their child has accidentally consumed a product that contains marijuana.
For policymakers: if your state has legalized marijuana for any purpose, or is considering legalizing marijuana, advocate for clear on-package labeling indicating the product contains marijuana. Mandate it be sold in child-resistant, opaque and re-sealable packaging. Additionally, regulate the appearance of marijuana edibles to ensure they do not resemble candy or other sweets. Propose laws or ordinances limiting the amount of THC allowed in marijuana edibles.
With a multifaceted, comprehensive approach, we know we can limit childhood exposures to marijuana, even as it is becoming more accessible in the United States.
To learn more about unintentional childhood exposures from marijuana and other addictive, toxic substances, please check out our recently published report, Childhood Poisoning: Safeguarding Young Children from Addictive Substances.
Jason is a research associate at Center on Addiction