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Poison Control Data Shows Marijuana Edibles Are Risks for Kids

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Key Takeaways

  • Increasing numbers of children are being exposed to marijuana edibles, according to a new research brief.
  • Between 2017 and 2019, there were 4,172 calls to regional poison control centers about exposure to marijuana in babies and kids through age 9.
  • The effects of the reported exposures were mostly minor, but experts warn that the health risks can be severe because it's impossible to know how much of the psychoactive component of marijuana is in each edible.

To date, 36 states have legalized the use of marijuana for adults, either recreationally, medicinally, or both. As a result, business is booming for marijuana edibles. This refers to marijuana-based foods and beverages, such as cakes, biscuits, sweets, chocolates, and shakes. According to a report from Zion Market Research, the global edibles market is expected to generate around $11,564 million by 2025.

Greater access to edibles, and the surge in sales, comes with a price. According to a study analyzing calls to poison control centers from January 2017 through December 2019, children are at an increased risk of accidental poisoning from edibles and other products made from marijuana. 

About the Study

The research, published in the journal Pediatrics, identified 4,172 calls to regional poison control centers about exposures to cannabis in babies and children through age 9. About half of the calls were related to edibles, as opposed to dried or pre-rolled cannabis plant poisonings, and the most affected age group was 3 through 5.

It's a growing problem because the frequency of the calls and the percentage related to edibles went up over the two-year period. Not surprisingly, the exposures were more than twice as common in states where marijuana use is legal as in those where it is not.

Julia A. Dilley, PhD, MES

Sometimes candy edibles can be in bright colors or shapes that look like gummies, and chocolates or cookies might also look like something a child would normally eat.

— Julia A. Dilley, PhD, MES

Luckily, the effects of the reported exposures were mostly minor, but in 15% of cases the effects were moderate, and in 1.4% they were severe, such as breathing difficulties.

The Problem with Edibles

According to study author Julia A. Dilley, PhD, MES, senior research scientist and epidemiologist at Oregon Health Authority, manufactured edibles are of particular concern because they tend to have higher concentrations of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis that produces the sensation of being high. She says it’s easy to understand why children are particularly vulnerable to poisoning by marijuana in these products. 

“Marijuana edibles can be attractive to children,” Dilley explains. “Sometimes candy edibles can be in bright colors or shapes that look like gummies, and chocolates or cookies might also look like something a child would normally eat.”

Dilley points out that sometimes the packaging is brightly colored or has fun images, which can make kids think it’s a treat. 

What This Means For You

Always store your edibles safely away from children, and make sure that family or caregivers do so as well.

If you think a child in your care has eaten marijuana edibles, call your local poison control center right away.

A child who has any concerning symptoms after possible ingestion, such as dizziness, vomiting, headache, and/or fatigue, should be taken to the emergency room without delay, as this can be a life-threatening emergency. 

It may be helpful to try to estimate the quantity of edibles that your child ingested (i.e. if you have a bottle of gummies, take a quick count to see how many are missing).

One of the problems with edibles is that we don’t know how much THC they contain because they’re not regulated, says Jessica Madden, MD, board-certified pediatrician and neonatologist and medical director of Aeroflow Breastpumps.

“Some of the edibles may have many times the recommended adult dose of THC,” Dr. Madden says. 

She explains that because children require lower doses of almost every single medication and drug (e.g., Tylenol or Benadryl) than adults due to not weighing as much and having different metabolisms, they likely have side effects from THC at much lower doses than adults. 

Jessica Madden, MD

Some of the edibles may have many times the recommended adult dose of THC.

— Jessica Madden, MD

“Additionally, we know from previous research that marijuana use in children and teenagers is associated with problems with learning and behavior, a decrease in brain size, and the emergence of possible mental health issues, like schizophrenia and psychosis,” Dr. Madden adds. 

Dilley acknowledges that regulating cannabis markets is all new, and states are doing their best to create regulations that limit accidental exposures and overconsumption, especially when higher THC concentration in products makes using "too much" easier to do.

“There isn't a playbook yet for what is most effective,” she says. “We need to keep looking at the data to help figure out the best ways to regulate these products for the protection of public health and safety.” 

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Article Sources
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  1. National Conference of State Legislatures. State medical marijuana laws. Updated June 9, 2021.

  2. Zion Market Research. Cannabis edibles market by type (solid edibles, topical edibles, inhalation, and liquid edibles), by preparation (cannabidiol and tetrahydrocannabinol), and by application (cancer, epilepsy, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, and others): global industry perspective, comprehensive analysis, and forecast, 2018–2025. Published February 13, 2019.

  3. Whitehill JM, Dilley JA, Brooks-Russell A, Terpak L, Graves JM. Edible cannabis exposures among children: 2017–2019. Pediatrics. 2021;147(4):e2020019893. doi:10.1542/peds.2020-019893