When there are cookies, chocolates, hard candies, gummies, chews, suckers, or popcorn in the house, the kids are going to eat them. It’s a given. But what happens when those treats are laced with marijuana? The answer is fairly obvious: They get eaten, too. And when kids eat edibles, you have a problem.
“When Washington and Colorado legalized marijuana, both states saw massive increases in calls to poison control centers and emergency room visits for kids ingesting edibles,” says Benjamin Hoffman, MD, a pediatrics professor at Oregon Health and Sciences University in Portland and medical director of the university’s Tom Sargent Safety Center. “Most edibles look like things kids want to eat — and if you’re a kid, a brownie’s a brownie. Some were even sold in packaging that’s very attractive to kids, such as peanut butter cups that looked like Reese’s.”
Other legal states learned from Colorado and Washington’s missteps and enacted regulations to protect children when crafting their own marijuana laws. Oregon, for example, requires that packaging for all edibles be opaque, unmarked, and child-resistant. The state also set maximum doses of THC (the compound that gets people high) per serving and per package. Hoffman says these mandates have helped a lot in Oregon, but not all states have taken such precautions when legalizing weed.
Although all edibles should be safely stored and locked up, the practice is far from universal. No matter what, if there are edibles in a family home, there is a chance a child will eat them. “Kids are inherently curious and built to explore,” Hoffman says. “So as more states legalize marijuana, kids’ exposure is going to go up.”
What Happens When a Kid Eats Edibles?
Although no one has ever died from acute marijuana intoxication, a kid accidentally eating edibles could pose a serious health concern. They can experience sleepiness, dizziness, loss of balance, rapid heart rate, nausea, fever, confusion, paranoia, or trouble breathing. If they ingest enough THC, Hoffman says they could have a seizure or go into a coma. But even if a kid doesn’t get super sick from pot-laced food, the strangeness of the whole experience can traumatize them — and scare the hell out of their parents too.
The tricky part about edibles is that the effects take a while to kick in. The food must be digested before the THC can enter the bloodstream and travel to the brain, a process that’ll take at least 30 minutes, likely longer. So, unless you catch your child in the act, you may have no idea that the child ate edibles until they start acting funny or getting sick.
But no matter when or how you realize your child ate pot food, first things first: “Do your best to stay calm,” Hoffman says. “Try to figure out what happened, and get a sense of how much THC they consumed. If they ate 25 milligrams just five minutes ago, they’ll probably look fine for a while, but you’ll want to go to the ER to have them observed and monitored. If you notice one 5-milligram gummy is missing, it could’ve been yesterday, so it’s already out of their system.”
There isn’t one specific dose of THC that’s toxic to children. Hoffman says it depends on each kid’s size and metabolism, though he offers some general guidelines: “Five milligrams, which is the maximum unit dose allowed in Oregon, could just make a 2-year-old could really sleepy and won’t likely cause them to seize or go into a coma,” he says. “If a younger kid ingests between 5 and 10 milligrams, then it depends on the circumstances. If the parents can be there to keep an eye on the child and have access to 911, then maybe they can be observed at home. Anything more than 10 milligrams, though, they should probably be seen by medical professionals.”
“There is no antidote to THC, no reversal agent. The THC will leave the child’s system eventually, once they metabolize it.”
But don’t try to determine the best course of action by yourself. Call the local poison control hotline. (The number is the same everywhere: 800-222-1222.) “They are awesome, totally nonjudgmental and there for you 24/7,” Hoffman says. “They’ll do a risk assessment and talk you through what to do.”
For instance, if your kid is sleepy and unresponsive, they’ll probably tell you to call 911. Or, after gauging the situation, they may say it’s fine to observe them at home. “They will be very cautious,” Hoffman says. “If they are not totally certain your child will be OK, they’ll tell you to seek medical attention.”
If you do bring your child into the hospital, once there, the practitioners will probably check the level of THC in their blood to see what they’re working with. “There is no antidote to THC, no reversal agent like naltrexone for opiates,” Hoffman says. “The THC will leave the child’s system eventually, once they metabolize it.”
In the meantime, unless the kid is seizing or they are unable to observe their vital functions, the doctors and nurses will mostly just observe and monitor them. “They’ll make sure their heart and breathing continue to be OK,” Hoffman says. “They might put in IV or give oxygen if necessary. It’s basically just providing support until they metabolize the THC.”
Depending on where you live and what the marijuana laws are, there is a chance the hospital could call child protective services, mainly to ensure there isn’t a pattern of neglect. “If the parent is totally out of it and lets edibles just sit on the coffee table, that is a very different circumstance than a child finding and eating one gummy,” Hoffman says. “Everyone understands that no parent can be perfect all the time.”
In other words, don’t let fear of a CPS inquiry stop you from getting your child medical attention. “If your kid is in danger,” Hoffman adds, “you need to do everything you can to protect them.”
If poison control says it’s safe to care for your child at home, “help them ride it out,” Hoffman says. “Make sure they are safe from a medical standpoint, and make them feel safe by giving them hugs or whatever they might need.”
Once your child has rebounded, it’s time for you to make sure this never happens again. “Do everything you possibly can to ensure your kids can’t get to your edibles,” Hoffman says. “One tactic is never going to work — you want layers of protection. If you have edibles in a locked zipper bag, that’s good. But someone is going to forget to lock it, or the kid is going to figure out how to get inside it. Putting edibles up in a high cabinet is good, but putting them in a locked container in a high cabinet is even better.”