Marijuana-related emergency room visits for children under 10 have increased dramatically in Colorado since the state’s recreational marijuana amendment went into effect in 2014, according to a new study in JAMA Pediatrics.
It’s not exactly “reefer madness” but the authors believe that the sudden spike in the number of kids accidentally ingesting their parent’s edibles can be attributed to legalization.
To track these cases, researchers from the University of Colorado and the Denver Health and Hospital Authority retroactively examined 163 incidents of marijuana exposure between 2009 and 2015 at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora and a regional poison center.
The average age of the children involved in these incidents was 2.4 years old. When a source of marijuana could be identified, cannabis-infused edibles like candy, cookies, and brownies were found to be responsible 48 percent of the time.
“Here at Children’s Hospital Colorado we saw an increase from one child we saw in the emergency department in 2009 to 16 in 2015,” said Dr. G. Sam Wang, the lead author of the study, in a press release. “And at the regional poison center, we had nine calls for kids between [ages] zero and nine in 2009 increase fivefold to 47 in 2015.”
Dr. Wang said that the majority of the cases happened at home, with the children later presenting symptoms of “lethargy” and “sleepiness.” Some cases were more serious, he added, requiring tracheal intubation to treat coma or respiratory depression.
Overall, the authors found that the average rate of marijuana-related visits to the children’s hospital had shot up from 1.2 per 100,000 children two years prior legalization to 2.3 per 100,000 two years afterward—a trend that suggests that “[recreational] legalization did affect the incidence of exposures.”
Two more findings shore up this hypothesis: Not only did Colorado’s increase in marijuana-related calls for young children outpace such increases in the rest of the country, but nearly half of the cases after legalization involved recreational rather than medical marijuana.
Many accidental exposures to marijuana can be avoided with better parental supervision and more secure packaging for edibles. Nearly 10 percent of the exposure cases in the JAMA Pediatrics study involved containers that were not child-resistant. In 34 percent of these cases, the problem was “poor child supervision or product storage.”
In February of this year, for example, a Wisconsin man had to take his 3-year-old son to the hospital after the boy accidentally ate marijuana-infused candy that had been left within reach of children during a birthday party. As WISN reported, the Sheboygan police report said the boy was “breathing but otherwise minimally responsive” when he was taken to the ER.
The boy survived after being treated in a children’s hospital; the father was later charged with child neglect.
Wang suggests that, as more states legalize weed, they should “think about proper regulations and rules to help prevent some of these exposures and ingestions.” He also believes that researchers should continue to examine “the impacts or lack thereof” of Colorado’s current regulations around the packaging of recreational marijuana.
Colorado currently requires edibles to be individually packaged within child-resistant containers designed to be difficult to open for children under the age of 5 (PDF). But once removed from that packaging at home, a brownie by any other name is apparently just as tempting for little fingers.