Accidental pot ingestion spikes in babies, kids

By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon

Since medical marijuana has become legal in Colorado, doctors have seen a dramatic spike in the number of babies and children who accidentally ate marijuana and needed emergency treatment.

A new study published Monday in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics found that 14 children needed to be treated at Childrens Hospital Colorado for accidental pot ingestion after 2009, when medical marijuana shops began to proliferate in Colorado. The children ranged from an 8-month-old to a 12-year-old.

The study authors cannot make a direct link between the proliferation of medical marijuana shops and the spike in cases. But, they pressed successfully for childproof packaging in legislation that will govern recreational pot, which Colorado voters approved in November.

With increasing use comes the increasing risk that kids can unintentionally get into it, said Dr. George Wang, lead author of the study and a toxicology fellow at Denver Healths Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center.

What was surprising to us was the number of kids we saw and how symptomatic kids can get, said Wang who is also a clinical instructor in pediatrics at Childrens Hospital Colorado and the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

There were no deaths in our study, but small kids who weigh less and get into these products still had to come to the hospital, get lab tests done and get admitted.

That is intense and scary to kids and their parents. And its a burden to the health care system.

Wang and his co-authors studied charts for all kids who came to Childrens Hospital Colorado for ingestion of an unknown substance between 2005 and 2011.

They looked both before and after October 2009 when hundreds of pot shops started opening in Colorado. From late 2009 to 2011, Wang and his co-authors found that 14 of 588 children who sought treatment at the Emergency Department had accidentally ingested marijuana. For instance, the 12-year-old ate some cake that she did not know contained marijuana. Half of the patients had ingested medical marijuana. Seven of the cases involved edibles such as cake, cookies or brownies.

Eight of the 14 children had to be hospitalized. One had difficulty breathing and another had trouble with muscle control. Two were so ill that they had to be treated in the pediatric intensive care unit. None of the children died.

Prior to the expansion of the medical marijuana businesses from 2005 to 2009, the study authors found that none of the 790 children who came to Childrens for ingestion of an unknown substance had marijuana in their systems.

Wang said he and his colleagues are not making recommendations about whether marijuana should be legal. But, he said parents and health care providers should all be aware of the risks that pot can pose to young children.

He said todays marijuana can be much stronger and these products can contain higher concentrations of THC, the active ingredient in the drug. Some marijuana infused candy bars, for example, contain 300 milligrams of THC.

Before the marijuana boom, these kinds of edibles were not mass-produced and the amount of THC ingested was somewhat limited, but now we are seeing much higher strength marijuana, Wang said. The key to this is prevention through child-resistant packaging.

Child-resistant packaging has become a standard of care and we know it works. It has been proven to decrease exposure to children and can play a role here, Wang said. We need to educate people about the risks and encourage proper storeage. And we need preventive measures.

Wang decided to do the research when he and his fellow doctors believed that they were seeing more kids who were sick from pot ingestion.

Theres a spectrum of symptoms, Wang said. Some are a little sleepy. The most serious were so somnolent that one of the children had difficulty breathing and needed respiratory support. Most had a degree of lethargy and some were unbalanced while walking.

An editorialby Dr. Sharon Levy of Boston Childrens Hospital that accompanied the new study said that the research reignites the debate over whether and how legalized marijuana impacts children and adolescents.

The question is critically important to the public, Levy said.

The public health community needs to be vigilant for unintended consequences of legalized marijuana, such as increased ingestion as reported by Wang et. al, Levy wrote. Unfortunately, as with tobacco, some of the most serious consequences will likely take years to manifest.

David Kelly of the University of Colorado contributed to this report.