Number of kids getting sick from cannabis edibles hits new high

January 03, 2023
Gummy bears mixed in with weed buds.
Cannabis edibles come in forms that may look pretty enticing to a child. iStock

New research shows the number of children under the age of 5 accidentally poisoned by cannabis edibles has soared 1,375% since 2017, a high doctors are not happy to see.

“It’s becoming more and more common. It’s important for people to understand that it’s a danger; it’s something that we’re really having to deal with,” said Christopher Pruitt, M.D., medical director of the MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital Emergency Department.

“The worst is where they’re very minimally responsive, and we are worried. I’ve had a number of these cases where we’re worried that we might have to place an artificial airway and put them on a ventilator.”

The study appears in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Marit Tweet, M.D., an emergency medicine doctor at Southern Illinois Medicine, led the research. Her team looked at reports to the National Poison Data System involving cannabis edibles in children under the age of 6 from 2017 to 2021. It found more than 7,000 cases. Of those, 2-year-olds had the highest rate of exposure, followed by 3-year-olds.

The substances that made the kids sick were usually found in settings their parents probably considered safe, Tweet said. “One important thing we hope people take away from this study is that the vast majority of these ingestions occur in a home, either the patient’s own home or another home setting. This should raise awareness that edible cannabis products should be stored away like other possible harmful substances in the home, like medications or cleaning chemicals.”

Headshot of Dr. Christopher Pruitt 
Dr. Christopher Pruitt

One key difference is that unlike most medications and cleaning chemicals, cannabis edibles can look pretty enticing to a child. Some are in the form of gummies, chocolate bars or salty chips. What kids usually don’t realize is that many edibles contain THC – the chemical in marijuana that affects a person’s mental state.

Another issue: Cannabis edibles are designed for much bigger bodies. Pruitt said that in his experience, the smaller the child, the larger the risk. “We see it some in older kids, but they’re more likely to have a reaction like a young adult versus a younger kid. Little kids can end up unresponsive.”

Unresponsive can mean the child has trouble breathing. That’s just one of the problems cannabis edibles can cause in children, according to the National Capital Poison Center. Kids may also feel dizzy, have trouble walking, act confused and have a rapid heart rate. In severe cases, they may suffer from hallucinations, a slowed heart rate and low blood pressure.

That leaves some people wondering why the government doesn’t require cannabis edibles to be in child-resistant packaging. The reason: While a growing number of states have legalized marijuana use, the federal government hasn’t. That means no federal regulations on how edibles are packaged.

Marijuana is currently illegal in South Carolina, but that doesn’t keep some people from ordering it or bringing it home from states where it’s legal. Pruitt encourages parents whose children unwittingly consumed cannabis edibles to take action.

“They shouldn’t wait and watch, because kids can change and things can change. You either want to bring them immediately to medical care or contact a medical professional. You can always call the National Poison Center. That number is 800-222-1222. The National Poison Center can advise you as to what you should do, whether you need to seek medical care. And they’re pretty good about communicating with local emergency departments to let us know that kids might be coming in.”

The good news is that researchers found no cases of a child dying after consuming cannabis edibles in the time they looked at. That jibes with what Pruitt has seen. He said most kids who get sick after eating a cannabis concoction stay in the hospital for about 24 hours while they recover, then they’re ready to go home.

His team has plenty of expertise in helping them deal with a type of poisoning that’s unfortunately on the rise. “We’re specially trained at the MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital to deal with kids in emergencies. Each of us has a vast amount of experience in dealing with these kinds of things.”

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