By: Kevin Osterhoudt, MD, MSCE, FAAP, FAACT, FACMT
Marijuana (cannabis) is now legal for medical or recreational use in most
U.S. states. That means the availability of tempting treats that contain tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, is on the rise. Unfortunately, so is the unintentional THC poisoning risk these products pose to kids who get a hold of them.
Marijuana can be
dangerous in all forms for children and adolescents, both in the short term and the long term. That's why it's important for parents to understand how much THC is contained in edible products and how THC is absorbed in the body. Parents also need to know how to keep kids safe.
What are marijuana edibles?
Edible marijuana products often look just like regular sweets and snacks. Some popular THC-infused products include:
Gummy candies, chocolate bars, lollipops, fudge and other candies
Baked goods, snack foods, and desserts, such as cookies, brownies, cupcakes, popcorn and ice cream
Sweetened beverages such as sodas and lemonade (sometimes called "weed drinks")
Effects of edible marijuana on children and teens
Despite their ordinary appearance, just one pot cookie or candy bar can contain several times the recommended adult dose of THC. Anyone who eats an entire THC edible—especially a child—can experience overdose effects such as:
For teens, regular marijuana use can impair memory and concentration and may interfere with learning. It's also associated with lower odds of completing high school or getting a college degree.
Regular use of marijuana is also linked to psychological problems, poorer lung health and a higher chance of substance use disorder in adulthood. Even using marijuana one time can alter motor control, coordination and judgment. This can contribute to unintentional deaths and injuries.
Delayed effects of edible marijuana linked to overdosing
Edible THC products take longer than smoked marijuana to have an effect. Smoking takes just seconds to minutes. But a THC edible typically takes 30 to 60 minutes after being eaten and digested. The peak effect happens 3 to 4 hours after ingesting.
Someone experimenting with THC edibles might not feel the effects as quickly as expected. They might ingest large amounts to try to "get high." This leads to overdosing.
For example, two years after Colorado legalized recreational marijuana in 2014, a 19-year-old college student died after eating a cookie he bought from a recreational pot shop. His friends told police he ate the whole cookie, which contained six servings of marijuana (10 mg THC/serving). He began acting strange and jumped to his death from the balcony of the hotel.
Poisonings from cannabis edibles on the rise
There has been a
in the number of kids unintentionally consuming marijuana products. This is especially true in the growing number of states where marijuana has been legalized. In fact, the rates of unintentional poisoning by cannabis edibles in children younger than 6 years old rose 1,375% between 2017 and 2021. Two-year-olds accounted for the largest share of children exposed (28%), followed by 3-year-olds (25%).
Are packaging rules enough?
THC food products often are made to closely resemble popular brand name candy and snacks. The packaging may be nearly identical, with the name slightly changed (think "KeefKat" or "Pot Tart").
Some states, including Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska, have passed laws to try to prevent THC poisoning. Products that contain marijuana may be required to have clear labeling with standardized serving sizes and THC content. Some states require child-proof packaging. But is all this enough?
Marijuana was legalized in Colorado for medical use in 2000 and for recreational use in 2012. A
study published in
JAMA Pediatrics looked at unintentional exposures to marijuana in Colorado. The study found packaging regulations like these aren't enough to keep kids safe. Accidental THC poisoning cases in children under age 9 continued to increase after Colorado legalized marijuana use, even with packaging regulations. Edible THC products were involved in more than half the cases.
How to keep marijuana edibles out of the hands of kids
The best way to keep your kids safe from marijuana edibles is not to have them in your home. Some other considerations:
Store them safely. If there are marijuana edibles in your home, store them the same way you would
store medications and other
potentially toxic products. Make sure the products are in out-of-reach or locked locations. They should also be in child-resistant packaging or containers. Clearly label marijuana edibles and store them in their original packaging.
Use with caution. Never consume marijuana edibles in front of children, either for medical or recreational purposes. Seeing the products could create temptation for kids. Using them may also impair your ability to provide a safe environment. You shouldn't drive if you've consumed edible marijuana products, especially with kids in the vehicle. THC use can slow down your reaction times.
Avoid buying THC edibles that come in packages that look just like real candies. And be sure to put them back into an out-of-reach location immediately after use.
Talk to family members, friends, and caregivers. In the
Colorado study mentioned above, sources of the unintentional 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 they store them safely. Be sure that they don't use them in front of your children or while watching them.
What to do if your child eats an edible
If your child unintentionally eats a marijuana edible, try to find out what and how much they ate. Look at the edible's wrapper to see how much THC it contains. Call the free poison control hotline—1-800-222-1222—as soon as possible for fast help. You can also get online help at www.poisoning.org.
If your child's symptoms seem severe, call 911 or go to an emergency room right away.
How to talk to children and 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 edible pot.
Teach your kids to ask permission first before eating food they find. This gives a chance for an adult to make sure the food is safe to eat.
- Talk to your kids about the potential
harm of marijuana to their developing minds and bodies. Stress the particular risks of marijuana edibles. The car can be a good place to have discussions or give your teen reminders before dropping them off at parties, dances, sleepovers, for example. Treat these talks the same way you'd discuss other recreational substances that are legal yet potentially harmful to kids such as
Remind them to never
drive under the influence of marijuana, or ride in a car with a driver who is under the influence of THC. Adults and teens regularly get into serious and even fatal car crashes while under the influence of marijuana and marijuana products.
Ask other parents and school officials in your community if they're aware of the dangers marijuana edibles pose to kids.
Talk with your pediatrician if you have any questions or need some guidance.
About Dr. Osterhoudt
Kevin Osterhoudt, MD, MSCE, FAAP, FACMT, serves on the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Injury, Violence, and Poison Prevention. He is an attending physician in the Emergency Department and Medical Director of The Poison Control Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.