With marijuana now legal for medical or recreational use in more than half of U.S. states, the availability of pastries, candy and other tempting treats infused with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, is on the rise—and so is the accidental poisoning risk these products pose to children who get ahold of them.
Marijuana can be dangerous in all forms, both in the short term and the long term for children and adolescents. That is why the American Academy of Pediatrics released a clinical report on Counseling Parents and Teens About Marijuana Use in the Era of Legalization.
It's critical for parents to understand the way these edible pot products are packaged, the amount of drug they contain, how the drug is absorbed in the body, and how available they are to children and teens.
What are Marijuana Edibles?
Sold as "discreet" alternatives to smoking marijuana cigarettes, edible marijuana products often look just like regular sweets. Some popular products include:
Baked goods, snack foods and desserts—including cookies, brownies, cupcakes, caramel corn and ice cream
Chocolate bars, gummy candies, lollipops, fudge and other candies
Sweetened beverages like sodas and lemonade
Effects of Edible Marijuana on Children & Teens
Despite their ordinary appearance, a single pot cookie or candy bar can contain several times the recommended adult dose of THC. Anyone who eats one of these edibles—especially a child—can experience overdose effects such as intoxication, altered perception, anxiety, panic, paranoia, dizziness, weakness, slurred speech, poor coordination, apnea, and heart problems.
For teens, regular marijuana use can impair memory and concentration, may interfere with learning, and is linked to lower odds of completing high school or obtaining a college degree. Regular use is also linked to psychological problems, poorer lung health, and a higher likelihood of drug dependence in adulthood. One-time use can alter motor control, coordination and judgment, which may contribute to unintentional deaths and injuries.
Delayed effects of edible marijuana linked to overdosing:
Edible marijuana products take longer than smoked marijuana to have an effect—usually 30-60 minutes after being eaten and absorbed by the digestive system; with the peak effect 3-4 hours after being eaten. Someone experimenting with marijuana edibles might not feel the effects as quickly as expected and eat large amounts in an attempt to "get high." This leads to overdosing.
In 2014, a 19-year-old college student on spring break died after eating a cookie purchased from a recreational pot shop in Colorado, where marijuana is legal. Friends told police he ate the whole cookie, which contained six "servings" of marijuana (10 mg THC) before he began acting oddly and jumped to his death from the balcony of the hotel.
Are Packaging Rules Enough?
After a reported rise in the number of kids accidentally consuming marijuana in states where it is now legal, Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska passed laws aimed at preventing pot poisoning. The regulations require products that contain marijuana have clear labeling with standardized serving sizes, for example, and child-proof packaging. But is that enough?
Marijuana candies, for example, are often made to look very similar to popular brand name candy and food products. For example, the package may resemble a Kit Kat® wrapper, but the title is slightly altered to "Keef Kat." Having these products in the home increases the risk of kids accidentally being exposed to marijuana.
In addition, even one standardized serving can have severe effects, especially on children.
A study published in JAMA Pediatrics examined unintentional exposures to marijuana in Colorado, where marijuana was legalized for medical use in 2000 and for recreational use in 2012. The study found packaging regulations like these aren't enough to keep kids safe. Accidental pot poisoning cases in children under age 9 continued to rise after Colorado legalized marijuana use—even with packaging regulations. Edible marijuana products were involved in more than half the cases.
How to Keep Marijuana Edibles out of the Hands of Kids
Storage: If there are marijuana edibles in your home, store them as you would medications and other potentially toxic products. Make sure the products are in out-of-reach or locked locations, in child-resistant packaging or containers. Clearly label marijuana edibles, and store them in their original packaging.
Use and supervision: Never consume marijuana edibles in front of children, either for medical or recreational purposes. Not only can seeing the products create temptation, but using them may impair your ability to provide a safe environment. Always put the marijuana edibles back into the child-resistant packaging and an out-of-reach location immediately after using them.
Talk to family members, friends and caregivers: In the Colorado study (referenced above), sources of the accidental marijuana exposure were most often a parent, but grandparents, other family members, neighbors, friends, and babysitters were also sources. Ask anyone whose home your children spend time in if they use marijuana edibles. If a relative, friend or caregiver does, make sure he or she stores them safely and does not use them in front of your children or while watching them.
Know what to do in an emergency: If your child eats marijuana by accident, call the free poison control hotline—1-800-222-1222—as soon as possible for fast help. If symptoms seem severe, call 911 or go to an emergency room right away.
How to Talk to Older Children & Teens About Marijuana Edibles
Federal statistics show that as more states legalize marijuana, fewer young people view it as harmful. But this perception doesn't line up with proven risks, especially from pot consumed in food.
Talk to your kids about the potential harm of marijuana to their developing minds and bodies and stress the particular risks of marijuana edibles. The car can be an important place to have discussions or give them reminders before dropping off at parties, dances, sleepovers, etc. Treat these talks the same way you'd discuss other recreational substances that are legal yet potentially harmful to kids such as alcohol, tobacco and e-cigarettes.
Remind them to never drive under the influence of marijuana, or ride in a car with a driver who is under the influence of marijuana. Adults and teens regularly get into serious and even fatal car accidents while under the influence of marijuana.
Ask other parents and school officials in your community if they are aware of the dangers marijuana edibles pose to kids.
Talk with your pediatrician for additional information and guidance.
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