The accessibility of marijuana products has expanded rapidly in recent years. In 2017, medical marijuana was legal in 30 states and Washington, D.C., and recreational marijuana was legal (for adult use) in eight states and the District of Columbia. After the elections in November 2022, recreational marijuana became legal in 21 states, D.C. and two U.S. territories.
These changes to the law have benefits for families, freeing them from the punishing limitations that drug convictions impose on education, employment and housing options. Parents in this growing number of states will no longer be separated from their children and incarcerated for the crime of possessing marijuana.
An unintended consequence of legalization and expanded access, however, has been an exponential rise in accidental ingestion of cannabis products by children. In 2017, 207 ingestions in children younger than 6 were reported to the National Poison Data System. By 2021, this number ballooned to 3,054 cases — an increase of 1,375%. Almost all of the ingestions occurred in someone’s home (98%). Twenty-three percent of these patients ended up being admitted to the hospital.
“Most of the edible cannabis exposures reported to poison centers are due to that less-than-5-year-old age range,” Kaitlyn Brown, clinical managing director of America’s Poison Centers, told HuffPost.
Here is what parents need to know about the dangers that marijuana edibles present for children and how to help keep kids of all ages safe.
What are the active ingredients in edibles?
The component of marijuana that makes you feel high is called tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. It is known as the psychoactive ingredient. When you purchase edibles, the packaging should indicate the percentage of THC in the product.
“THC gummies or edibles can contain more than 20% THC,” Dr. Gary Goodman, medical director of the pediatric intensive care unit at Children’s Hospital of Orange County at Mission Hospital, in Southern California, told HuffPost.
Another component of marijuana on the market is cannabidiol, or CBD. CBD does not cause symptoms of a “high” and is not addictive, whereas THC can be addictive for some people. CBD can be used to treat certain medical conditions, like some childhood seizure disorders, and some people believe it has an anxiety-reducing effect. It is available legally throughout the country.
“CBD edibles legally must contain less than 0.3%” THC, said Goodman. It is unlikely that ingesting a CBD product would cause symptoms in a child other than perhaps a little sleepiness, Brown said — although it’s always a good idea to call a poison control center if your child has eaten something they weren’t supposed to.
Why do THC edibles pose a particular danger for children?
Though marijuana has been available for a long time, only in recent years with legalization has it come in a form that looks and tastes like candy. While it’s true that young children will put anything into their mouths, the fact that edibles taste like common treats makes it more likely that kids will keep eating. THC-infused beverages are also now available.
Look-alike products, whose packaging mimics well-known brands of regular candy, chips or other snacks, can cause further confusion. “Some states have legislation that doesn’t allow products to be marketed in that way; other states don’t,” Brown said.
Then there is the lag time between ingesting THC and feeling its effects.
“Typically, it may take between 30 and 60 minutes for an edible THC product to take effect,” Goodman said.
“The peak effect typically occurs three to four hours after ingestion. Because of this, a child may accidentally consume large amounts of THC before they feel any effect,” he added.
Packages of edibles, which Brown noted usually aren’t child-resistant, like a medication would be, may contain multiple servings of a product intended for an adult body.
This combination of accessibility, appearance and flavor makes cannabis edibles a prime candidate for accidental ingestions by children.
What symptoms will a child have after ingesting THC edibles?
In the hours following ingestion, children may exhibit a range of symptoms, depending on the potency and the quantity of the product.
“You can have the kids that just aren’t acting right,” said Dr. Janine Zee-Cheng, a pediatrician practicing in Indiana. “They can stumble; they can have speech problems.”
They may also display “emotional dysregulation, like crying, screaming, anger. They can have hallucinations,” Zee-Cheng said.
Brown said that the most common symptoms parents report to poison control are drowsiness and vomiting but kids may also exhibit confusion, disorientation, lack of coordination, wobbliness or agitation.
There is no medical treatment to counteract the effects of marijuana. Children experiencing symptoms are treated with supportive care, such as fluids and rest, either at home or in the hospital, depending on the amount they ingested and the severity of their symptoms. In rare cases, children need breathing support, such as a ventilator.
What should I do if I think my child may have ingested cannabis edibles?
If you believe your child has ingested cannabis edibles, you should call your pediatrician or the Poison Help line: (800) 222-1222. You can also visit PoisonHelp.org for information and assistance. Inquiries to Poison Help are free and confidential.
Try to figure out what time you think your child consumed the edibles and how much they ingested. Retain the packaging for reference.
Brown emphasized that parents should not hesitate to call Poison Help even if they live in a state where marijuana is not legal.
Your call is a “confidential, protected interaction,” she explained. A poison control operator will not, for example, inform the police that you have cannabis edibles in your home.
How should I store cannabis edibles?
“Prevention is key here,” Brown said. It is our job as parents to keep our children safe from cannabis ingestion.
“Treat these products as you would any other medication or cleaning supply. Keep them out of reach of children. So that means not in the regular pantry, keep them high up in a locked cabinet,” Zee-Cheng said.
You can also avoid purchasing products with confusing packaging that children may mistake for a regular candy, cookie or beverage, and purchase products packaged in child-resistant containers.
Goodman also suggested not consuming edibles in front of your children, as this may pique their interest and lead them to think the product is a regular food.
How should I talk to my teen about cannabis edibles?
If your child is getting close to their teenage years, you’re going to need to make some major revisions to the marijuana talk that you may have received from your own parents.
Though most of us came of age in an era when marijuana was almost always consumed by smoking, or perhaps occasionally in a batch of brownies, our kids are looking at a very different landscape.
When smoked, a person will feel the effects of marijuana in 10 to 15 minutes, Brown explained, which gives a person a chance to stop before the sensation becomes too much to bear. But it can take 30 to 60 minutes to start to feel the effects of an edible — and a teen, feeling “nothing” during that time, might just keep eating more. The symptoms may peak four to six hours later, and the total effects could last 12 to 24 hours, Brown said.
You want your kids to understand that this is how edibles work, as well as the difference between CBD and THC. They should know that the quantity of THC varies from one product to the next and that one package may contain multiple servings. A bar of chocolate, for example, might be one serving per square, not the whole bar.
Studies have shown that teens who use cannabis show cognitive effects such as problems with focus, memory, coordination and reaction time. The AAP recommends against cannabis use for people younger than 21 for these reasons and because young people’s brains remain under development until they are 25. Driving and other kinds of accidents can happen under the influence of cannabis as well, and smoking cannabis poses many of the same risks as smoking tobacco.
Reiterate that kids shouldn’t eat candy or treats if they aren’t sure where they’re coming from and that you are here to help if they have a question or concern about marijuana or other drugs.
You want your kids to know that if they find themselves in a dangerous situation they can call you for help. Some parents come up with a code word or phrase that their child can text to let them know they need help, and the parent will call to “inform” the child that they are coming to get them. This gives your child a way to exit a potentially dangerous situation without embarrassing them in front of their friends — and a chance for you to show your child that you care about their safety above everything else.