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Number of Young Children Exposed to Marijuana Skyrockets
A new study has found that the rate of marijuana exposure in children younger than 6 increased by 147.5 percent from 2006 to 2013 across the U.S., with a much larger increase—of around 610 percent—in states where marijuana was legalized for medical purposes prior to 2000. Although the results of these exposures were usually mild, in some cases the children—who were primarily under 3 years old—suffered serious effects such as comas or seizures. The study is particularly relevant with the growing trend toward legalization of marijuana for medicinal or recreational purposes and underlines the importance of ensuring that any such moves include provisions to minimize the number of unintended exposures to the drug.
How Many Kids Are Poisoned by Pot?
The researchers set out to investigate how many kids ages 5 and under are exposed to marijuana. They used data from the National Poison Data System, covering the period from 2000 to 2013, looking specifically at youth exposures in terms of whether or not the state had legalized marijuana for some purpose either before 2000 or at some point from 2000 to 2013. The effects of these exposures were classified as mild, moderate or severe, and any cases with an intentional or malicious reason for the exposure weren’t included in the analysis.
Overall, the researchers found that there were 1,969 reports to poison control centers about marijuana exposures in children aged 6 and under, at an average rate of 140.6 exposures each year or 5.9 exposures per million children. The majority of these were classified as unintentional, 5.4 percent weren’t classified and 2.4 percent were due to adverse reactions or for other reasons. Eighty-three percent of exposures occurred at the child’s home, with just under 10 percent occurring at somebody else’s home, and over three-quarters of all cases involved children under 3 years old.
Almost 41 percent of the children who were exposed suffered adverse effects, with drowsiness or lethargy being the most common symptom by a substantial margin, accounting for 29.5 percent of exposures. The next most common result was ataxia (problems with motor coordination), which occurred in 5.4 percent of cases, with other effects like irritability and confusion occurring in fewer cases. However, 17 children (all under age 4) went into a coma, 10 had single or multiple seizures and 14 had respiratory depression (breathing problems).
Does Legalization of Marijuana Affect Poisoning Rates?
The comparison among states with legalized marijuana for medical or recreational purposes and those with no legalization shows that, as expected, legalization increases the rates of poisoning. Over the whole period studied, states that had legalized marijuana for medical purposes prior to 2000 had 2.82-times higher rates of marijuana exposure in youths, compared to states where the drug isn’t legal. The rate of exposures still increased, by just over 63 percent, in states where pot wasn’t legal, but for those with medical marijuana programs prior to 2000, the rate decreased by 34.1 percent from 2000 to 2006, but increased by a massive 609.6 percent from 2006 to 2013.
For the “transitional” states—where pot was legalized for medical or recreational purposes during the study period—the rate of exposures per 1 million children after legalization was 2.25 times higher than before legalization.
Over the whole of the U.S., the rate of marijuana exposures in kids under age 6 didn’t increase from 2000 to 2006, but rose by 147.5 percent from 2006 to 2013.
Legalization and Protecting Children: The Edibles Problem
Noting that three-quarters of exposures were through ingestion, co-author of the study Henry Spiller said that, “The high percentage of ingestions may be related to the popularity of marijuana brownies, cookies and other foods. Very young children explore their environments by putting items in their mouths, and foods such as brownies and cookies are attractive.”
The researchers point out that protection of children should be a factor in the discussion when legalization of marijuana is debated, and their data show that—although the rate of exposure is still ultimately quite low—this is a significant problem that’s likely to get worse as more states liberalize their pot laws. It’s clear that brownies and cookies are a big part of the issue: kids are hardly going to understand that some cookies are laced with drugs, so parents have to be very careful about leaving such edibles within a child’s reach.
The researchers suggest that pot edibles be kept in child-resistant packing that isn’t see-through and out of reach and out of sight of children, preferably in a locked cupboard. In short, we need to start treating pot edibles in the same way we treat medicines and dangerous household chemicals.