DENVER – More Colorado kids have ended up in the hospital after accidentally consuming marijuana since 2009, when medical marijuana became widely available, according to a study published Monday in JAMA Pediatrics.
Dr. George Sam Wang of Children’s Hospital Colorado looked at visits to his hospital’s emergency department from 2005 to 2011. Before 2009, there were no cases of marijuana exposure in kids under age 12, but the hospital saw 14 pot exposure cases in kids in the last three years of the study.
Although the numbers are small and were collected from just one hospital, Wang concludes that medical legalization has caused “a significant increase in the exposure of young children to marijuana.”
The article was published online Monday by the Journal of the American Medical Association. It is the first study of its kind to evaluate the effects on children of changes in state laws that make marijuana legally available.
“The consequences of marijuana exposure in children should be part of the ongoing debate on legalizing marijuana,” Wang and two co-authors wrote.
The study ended before Colorado voters passed Amendment 64, which legalized recreational marijuana. The state has had legal medical marijuana since 2000, but it only became popular in 2009 when the Obama Administration announced it would not prosecute most medical pot cases.
Marijuana ingestion can cause serious problems for young children. Eight of the patients in Wang’s study were admitted to the hospital for treatment, including two who were sent to the intensive care unit. One 5-year-old boy had to go to the ICU for breathing problems after he ate his grandfather’s marijuana.
Edible marijuana products like cookies or candy are enticing to children, the study said. Eight of the 14 patients had consumed medical marijuana – and seven of them had taken edibles.
“Physicians, especially in states that have decriminalized medical marijuana, need to be cognizant of the potential for marijuana exposures and be familiar with the symptoms of marijuana ingestion,” Wang wrote.
Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana.
Doctors from Children’s Hospital testified frequently to the committees that drafted marijuana laws this year, said Mike Elliott, head of the Medical Marijuana Industry Group. Elliott helped craft the state regulations, and he said the committees listened to the doctors and required childproof packages and a 100-milligram limit of THC in edible marijuana.
“The whole idea with that potency limit was to help ensure the naive user (including little kids) doesn’t overdo it,” Elliott said.
Most marijuana proponents think childhood exposure is a serious issue, said Brian Vicente, a primary author of Amendment 64.
“We believe by moving this product behind the counter” – and out of the black market – “we’ll find it much easier to prevent access by teens,” Vicente said.
But he also urged a sense of perspective. There are no reports of fatalities from marijuana overdoses, while smoking, drugs and alcohol have killed untold numbers of people, he said.
Wang’s study points out that although marijuana proponents suggest the drug is safer than alcohol, only two children under age 12 showed up in the Children’s Hospital emergency room for alcohol ingestion in the same time that the 14 kids who had ingested pot went to the hospital.
Despite the increase after 2009, pot is far from the most common type of poisoning in kids. In the same period that 14 kids went to Children’s Hospital for marijuana, 48 were taken there for ingesting acetaminophen, an over-the-counter pain reliever.
In an editorial that accompanied Wang’s study, Drs. William Hurley and Suzan Mazor note that the potency of marijuana has greatly increased the last 40 years, from around 2 percent THC – the psychoactive ingredient – to about 8 percent.
“The risk of significant toxic reactions from exposures is more likely today than in the past,” the editorial said.
Hurley and Mazor call for the use of child-resistant packaging and for an education campaign through the media and doctors to change attitudes about the seriousness of childhood exposure to marijuana.