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Study finds children are accessing edible cannabis in higher numbers

New legal marijuana comes in candy style treats
Patrick Morrissey
Adobe Stock
Lots of edible cannabis products have packaging with big, bold letters or bright colors like other candy products, so it can be difficult to tell the difference between an edible and a simple snack.

As states have legalized medical and recreational marijuana over the years – including several in the Mountain West – edibles like gummies and candies containing THC have become increasingly accessible. But this accessibility is proving to be a hazard as new data reveals a big spike in the number of children getting their hands on the potent products.

A study published in the journal Pediatrics this week shows that the nation's poison centers saw the number of reports of children 5 and under who ingested edible cannabis products jump from about 200 in 2017 to more than 3,000 in 2021. Overall, there were more than 7,000 exposures over the five-year timespan.

“In the grand scheme of things, it still is only a very small percent of all the cases that get reported to the poison centers,” said Marit Tweet, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Southern Illinois University who led the study. “But for just looking at edible cannabis exposure it’s a pretty, pretty significant jump up there.”

The researchers also found an increase in the number of both intensive care and non-intensive care admissions, as well as an increase in the moderate and major effects that the young patients demonstrated, according to Tweet.

Tweet said this spike can primarily be attributed to the fact that kids are curious.

“Children under six, they're becoming mobile, they're moving around, they're exploring and they're finding these things that can resemble candy or other snacks,” she said. “And they don't know that they shouldn't eat it. So there is that increased risk of them getting into it and them not understanding that that's something that could be harmful to them.”

The national trend can also be seen in Colorado, which by far has the largest cannabis industry in the Mountain West. In 2021, of the 310 reported exposures, 97 of them were unintentional edible exposures among children 5 and under, compared to 35 in 2017, according to data from the state's Poison Center.

I would say our experience is similar to this research,” said Dr. Sam Wang, an emergency medicine physician from Children’s Hospital Colorado.

Lots of edible cannabis products have packaging with big, bold letters or bright colors like other candy products, so it can be difficult to tell the difference between an edible and a simple snack. Tweet hopes that continues to change.

“That's one of the big things is regulating the packaging itself, making sure that it's child resistant, making sure that it's less appealing to kids, you know, opaque packaging,” she said.

In the Mountain West, four states – Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Montana – have already enacted laws to regulate packaging to minimize the risk to kids. In Colorado, some of those rules include no enticing gummy bear-like shapes, no mention of the word “candy” on the packaging and no use of cartoon characters or designs meant to appeal to children.

Wang believes these measures are working.

“I think these preventative rules and regulations should help some, although we've also seen our numbers continue to rise, too,” he said. “So you can only imagine what those numbers would be if we didn't have these rules and regulations in place.”

Both doctors and researchers say simple awareness and steps taken at home can help prevent accidental ingestion of cannabis. Parents can keep the packaging out of reach and consume edibles outside the kitchen so they're not perceived to be a snack.

“[They] have to make sure they treat it just like any other potentially dangerous pharmaceutical product or alcohol in your home,” Wang said. “You have to make sure they store them properly, keep them in the original containers, ideally up and out of reach in a locked container.”

There’s a wide range of symptoms children can experience from ingesting THC, depending on their size, age and how much they consumed.

“Fortunately, most of the symptoms we see are fairly mild and include a little bit of sleepiness,” Wang said. “But the more a child takes it, especially if they're smaller or younger, the symptoms can be more severe…[that] can be a coma. We call it respiratory depression, or they're breathing much slower.”

If you suspect a child has ingested an edible, doctors suggest calling the main Poison Control Center line immediately at 1-800-222-1222, or if it is life-threatening, to call 911.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

I'm the General Assignment Reporter and Back-Up Host for KUNC, here to keep you up-to-date on news in Northern Colorado — whether I'm out in the field or sitting in the host chair. From city climate policies, to businesses closing, to the creativity of Indigenous people, I'll research what is happening in your backyard and share those stories with you as you go about your day.