Study suggests link between edible pot and overdose among kids

May 28, 2013

Doctors are sounding an alarm about marijuana and young children, especially when it comes to marijuana-infused products, or "medibles". 

The rise of medicinal marijuana has brought a growing number of food products that contain the drug and might appeal to kids. Pot brownies have been around for decades, but nowadays you can also find pot cookies, lollipops, bon-bons, lasagna, and more. These products make it easier on someone who needs to use marijuana for medical reasons but doesn’t want to smoke. 

“We think the kids will get into those at a higher rate than they get into alcohol or the marijuana plant,” says Dr. William Hurley, director of the Washington Poison Control Center and an Emergency Department doctor at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

Research on ER use in Colorado

A new study conducted in Colorado shows an increase in kids seen at Emergency Departments ever since medical marijuana laws were liberalized in 2009. In more than three years prior to that, zero kids went to the ER for marijuana overdose. But in the two years after the changes, 14 kids were confirmed to have overdosed on marijuana. Half the poisonings in Colorado were linked to edibles.

No numbers are available for Washington state, but Hurley says in general, it’s primarily toddlers in the age range of 2 to 4 years who get into trouble. Those kids tend to put anything that looks edible into their mouths. The Washington Poison Center gets calls every week about kids who’ve eaten marijuana, he says.

Biology of kids means more extreme reactions

Marijuana affects young children a bit differently than adults. First they get stimulated, and might appear hyperactive. Then they crash, and that's where the real danger lies as the basic systems in their bodies slow down.

"We see kids that are comatose and, in about 10 percent of cases, have to have us take over the ability for them to breath," meaning they have to go on a ventilator, because their heart and lungs have slowed down so much, says Hurley.

The Colorado study and an editorial by Hurley appear this week in the journal JAMA Pediatrics. (Time magazine also featured a summary of how the study was conducted in Colorado.)

Hurley fears the use of edible marijuana products could get out of control, like the prescription drug epidemic, but the effects might not show up in data for several years.

As a precaution, he is urging government action on two fronts. Hurley wants the Washington state Liquor Control Board to modify its proposed rules for marijuana. He wants a requirement for child-proof packaging on all marijuana edibles. The current LCB proposed rules only call for clear labeling.

Hurley is also pushing for a robust education campaign for clinicians and the public. Health providers need to learn the signs of marijuana overdose, he says, and the public needs to learn about the risks.