More Kids Are Accidentally Eating Marijuana Edibles, Study Finds

Between 2017 and 2021, accidental cannabis ingestion in young children rose by 1,375 percent

Cannabis edibles
Some experts say cannabis product packaging may appear similar to other snacks, which can confuse kids.  skodonnell via Getty Images

The number of kids under the age of six who accidentally ate edible cannabis in the United States has spiked dramatically in recent years, new research suggests. In just five years between 2017 and 2021, cases rose from 207 to 3,054—a 1,375 percent increase. 

About 98 percent of the kids got access to the drugs in a home setting, according to the study published Tuesday in Pediatrics. Researchers analyzed data from the National Poison Data System (NPDS) data portal and found that about 23 percent of the cases resulted in admittance to a hospital.

“Even though I was seeing more cases coming through the ER, when we looked at the data nationwide, we were definitely surprised,” study co-author Antonia Nemanich, who works in medical toxicology at Rush Emergency Medicine in Chicago, tells CNN’s Jen Christensen and Sandee LaMotte. 

Children younger than six years old account for about 40 percent of all calls to poison control nationally, lead author Marit Tweet, an emergency medicine doctor at SIU Medicine in Springfield, Illinois, tells NPR’s Rhitu Chatterjee. 

“They can get into things, and you can’t really rationalize with them,” she tells the publication. With a marijuana edible, “they think it looks like candy, and maybe, they just want to eat it.”

A typical dose of edible cannabis ranges from 2.5 to 10 milligrams of THC, per the study, but packages often contain multiple doses. 

“A child would not recognize the need to stop after one bite/segment/piece,” write the authors. “Given the smaller weight of pediatric patients, a higher milligram/kilogram dose is ingested, which puts children at risk for increased toxicity from these exposures.”

Once a child has consumed marijuana, the effects cannot be immediately reversed. The child may become lethargic, feel anxious and have a slower or faster heart rate. Severe symptoms are rare, but they can include loss of consciousness, difficulty breathing or seizures. Symptoms will differ based on the child’s height and weight, age and amount of the drug consumed. Hospitals will monitor the young patients while they metabolize the cannabis and give them IV fluids or oxygen, if needed. No deaths were reported in the study.

Researchers say the actual number of kids accidentally eating edibles is probably higher than what the data suggests. If caregivers do not call poison control or if a pediatrician treats the child without alerting a poison center, those cases would go unreported, Tweet explains to USA Today’s Mike Snider. However, the researchers write that increased reporting to poison centers and decreased stigma around cannabis use may have also contributed to the observed rise in exposures.  

In recent years, more states have legalized recreational cannabis use, which could help explain these more frequent exposures. But some doctors say legalization isn’t necessarily the issue. Instead, they say, cannabis needs regulation around packaging, like the rules that exist for tobacco and alcohol. 

“My stance is that it is not a problem that these products are legalized, but the problem is that they’re not packaged the way drugs or medications are packaged. We have a lot of safeguards in place for that,” Nemanich tells CNN. “They’re marketed as if they’re just any other tasty treat.”

Experts suggest storing edibles in locked cabinets or on high shelves away from other food products to keep kids from getting to them. Adults can also buy products that are easily distinguishable from other snacks to avoid confusion. 

“Never consume marijuana edibles in front of children, either for medical or recreational purposes,” Kevin Osterhoudt, the medical director of the poison control center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, tells USA Today. “Seeing the products could create temptation for kids.”