This Simple Plan Would Make Marijuana Much Less Dangerous For Kids
A new study found that legalization and decriminalization are linked to a rise in child cannabis poisonings. Weirdly, federal legalization could help.
If marijuana really is medicine, then making it taste like candy and cookies doesn’t make sense. Neither does packaging it in concentrated doses and marketing it to the public. That’s what puzzles researcher Nicholas Buckley, M.D., a professor of clinical pharmacology at the University of Sydney in Australia, about America’s laissez-faire approach to cannabis policy. He suspects this is what has been driving the rising number of cannabis poisonings among toddlers specifically — a rise that he and other researchers recently demonstrated in a meta-analysis of 30 studies.
“You've got something that you're basically regarding as a drug or a medicine, and yet people are packaging it like it's a lollipop in very high concentrated amounts,” Buckley says. “I'm unclear what the loophole is there, but I'm pretty sure they couldn't start putting oxycodone in lollies.”
Although it’s not uncommon for young kids to put random things in their mouths or even accidentally poison themselves with cleaning products around the home, the difference with edibles is that they taste really good and are often concentrated with THC. To Buckley, this explains why cannabis poisoning appears to peak among 2-year-olds, who are too young to understand the difference between grown-up candy and regular candy, and teenagers, who are typically experimenting intentionally, both with edibles and other products.
“You've got something that you're basically regarding as a drug or a medicine, and yet people are packaging it like it's a lollipop in very high concentrated amounts.”
“All we're saying is, we've seen a big jump in pediatric cannabis poisonings where it's been decriminalized, or legalized, [in the United States], and people should think about why that is,” he says. Conversely, in Australia — where cannabis was legalized in 2016, there are rules about producing edibles that could appeal to children and strict regulations about labeling and marketing cannabis, and there hasn’t been as much research done on the subject — there hasn’t been the same rise in child cannabis poisonings, Buckley says.
“It seems like all that was just bypassed in many American states,” Buckley says, noting that federal legalization of cannabis in the U.S. could allow for similar regulations that could protect children. But as long as states are left to regulate the marijuana industry themselves, and companies are allowed to compete to have the strongest and tastiest edibles, the risks of cannabis poisoning remain very real for kids.
Fatherly spoke with Buckley about the findings in his recent study, and what they mean for parents.
In the U.S., there's this assumption that cannabis is less harmful than alcohol. But when you consider how many children are accidentally poisoning themselves, is that true? My guess is there aren’t a ton of toddlers getting accidental alcohol poisoning, but I could be wrong.
We certainly get quite a few accidental kid poisonings, but you have to have a concentrated source. So we've actually had quite a lot of kids getting poisoned with hand sanitizers, for example, which contain sometimes 60 to 70% alcohol. But little kids, they don't tend to like the taste. So if we're talking toddlers and not adolescents, toddlers don't tend to drink a whole lot of spirits if they come across it. And if they swallow a bit of beer or something, it's not a very big dose.
Most countries... would not allow products like this to be aimed at kids that actually contain a toxic substance or a medicine, or in this case, both.
How does this compare to cannabis?
I suspect cannabis oil on its own is pretty bitter and disgusting. But when it's packaged up as sweets, that's when the toddlers look at it and it looks like a sweet, tastes like a sweet, and they often have very big doses in these gummies and the like.
Based on that, is it possible to say if cannabis is more, or at least as, harmful as alcohol to toddlers and small children?
I'd say if anything, it seems a bit worse. It's particularly bad if people don't recognize [that the child has consumed marijuana]. That's where you get the slightly worrying stories that the child's brought in to a health professional, and they just look like they've got a brain infection or something seriously wrong with them. It's very common that kids swallow things and people don't realize they've swallowed them until they go looking for what has made them sick.
How dangerous is cannabis poisoning to little kids? Your research mentions seizures and comas, but were those extreme cases?
The ones where children have seizures are the most concerning, and that's probably only 1 or 2% of poisonings. It's not the usual. Most common is the kid becomes confused, maybe very sleepy, and maybe nausea or vomiting. But nothing that's terribly life-threatening. And as long as it's recognized what the problem is, the kid would just go to hospital and be observed for a few hours, then sent home.
One of the other problems is that if you have an acutely confused kid, people start thinking brain infection and doing lumbar punches, CAT scans, and giving them a whole lot of antibiotics — until someone goes, "Well, has anyone done a urine drug screen?"
When it's packaged up as sweets, that's when the toddlers look at it and it looks like a sweet, tastes like a sweet, and they often have very big doses in these gummies and the like.
Is it possible for children to die of cannabis poisoning?
It wasn't really part of our study, but there have been some deaths reported in children. It would be a very rare event.
Why are countries like Australia rethinking advertising cannabis products? How might this protect children?
You're not trying to actually increase use of the product; you're just trying to make it non-criminal. This is what you've seen with the vapes as well. It makes sense that vapes would be available for people who wanted to use it to quit smoking, but it's turned into this big market where you push it to teenagers and you advertise.
I wonder if that's because all the laws have been state-based and yet your drug regulation is federal. If the FDA says cannabis is actually banned, it doesn't have regulations around it. So when a state introduces it, and says, "No, it's legal in Colorado," perhaps they actually haven't thought through all the other regulations that apply to the drug.
It's interesting when you put it that way, because it's almost like if it was federally illegal, the federal government could put in more regulations to protect kids. Is that kind of what you're saying?
I'm saying that's the way most countries would do it. We would not allow products like this to be aimed at kids that actually contain a toxic substance or a medicine, or in this case, both.
Just to be clear, do you think cannabis should be legal? Or is it more of a matter of if it is legal, edibles and marketing don't really make sense?
I think substance use should be treated as a health problem rather than a legal problem. That's just my bias. I'm more than happy to see things decriminalized, but then I think it makes sense to be reigning in some of this free enterprise-approach that is not giving us any health benefits. Cannabis is not harmless for everyone.