Colorado study warns of dangers of children accidentally ingesting medical marijuana

A warning to parents and health care providers in Massachusetts from a poison control specialist in Colorado: As the use of medical marijuana becomes more prevalent, so too do reports of young children inadvertently ingesting the drug and ending up in the hospital.

When the number of people approved to purchase marijuana for medical use increased sharply in Colorado in 2009 officials witnessed a jump in the number of calls to poison control centers about children inadvertently eating marijuana-laced products, such as brownies, cookies, and candies, according to a study published online Monday by JAMA Pediatrics.

Marijuana-infused products have become popular for patients who are unable, or do not want, to smoke the drug.

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“In our study, most exposures were due to ingestion of medical marijuana in a food product,” wrote the study authors.

Dr. George Sam Wan of the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center and his colleagues compared the proportion of marijuana ingestions by young children who were brought to the emergency room before and after October 2009, when drug enforcement laws regarding medical marijuana use were relaxed.

The researchers found no record of children brought to the ER in a large Colorado children’s hospital for marijuana-related poisonings between January 2005 and September 30, 2009—a span of 57 months.

By comparison, they found 14 cases involving marijuana ingestion between October 1, 2009, and December 31, 2011, a span of just 27 months.

Eight of the 14 cases involved medical marijuana, and all but one of those came from food products, the authors said. In all, eight of the patients had to be admitted to the hospital, with two of them ending up in intensive care. None died.

The ages of children studied ranged from 8 months to 12 years old. During those years, Colorado had no laws requiring medical marijuana to be sold in child-proof packaging.

But new regulations that went into effect this month in Massachusetts require such packaging.

In an editorial that accompanied the article, Boston Children’s Hospital pediatrician Dr. Sharon Levy wrote that Wan’s report “reignites the debate over whether and how legalized marijuana impacts children and adolescents.”

Levy noted that nearly all of the patients treated in the Adolescent Substance Abuse Program at her hospital who used tobacco products said they would like to quit because of health concerns, while few seemed to understand the health consequences from marijuana use, including potential mood, anxiety and thought disorders.

She also wrote that some studies have found higher rates of adolescent recreational marijuana use after states legalized the drug for medical use, while other surveys failed to find a significant link.

“The wealth of data on marijuana use rates has been used by marijuana legalization proponents and opponents alike—each side weaving the same numbers into a different story—somehow leaving the public underinformed even as the public is increasingly being called on to decide whether to legalize marijuana,” Levy wrote.

Massachusetts became the 18th state to adopt a medical marijuana law after voters approved a ballot referendum last November.