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Colorado drug laws lead to children accidentally scarfing weed brownies: study

Marijuana at a dispensary in Denver. Colorado voters elected to legalize medical marijuana in 2000 and recreational marijuana in 2012. (AP/Ed Andrieski)

The headline "Surge in children accidentally eating marijuana-laced foods," presumably concocted by an eager PR staffer and slapped atop a press release from Monday, is a bit rich. The "surge" in question constitutes to only 14 kids.

Still, the new research from Colorado raises interesting questions about whether the softening of state drug laws has had an adverse health effect on children. 

Readers may remember that last November voters in Colorado, along with voters in Washington state, voted to legalize weed for recreational use. More importantly for the purposes of this study, Colorado had already passed an amendment in 2000 to establish a registry of users who could use marijuana for medical purposes. 

Researchers at the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center and the pediatrics department at the University of Colorado School of Medicine wanted to know: what effect was this having on pediatric public health?

So they pulled the case histories of 1,378 patients younger than 12 admitted to a local children's hospital for accidental ingestions: 790 before Oct.1, 2009, and 588 after that date.

Oct.1, 2009 is no arbitrary dividing line. That month, Deputy Attorney General David Ogden released a memo telling federal law enforcement offers not to waste government resources chasing after marijuana users in states where laws provide for the medical use of the drug.

According to the study, medical marijuana users in Colorado spiked after that: 60,000 medical marijuana registry cards were issued that year, compared to 2,000 in the eight years prior.

What the researchers found when they pulled the emergency department files is interesting: between 2005 and Oct. 1, 2009, a total of 57 months, there were no accidental ingestions of marijuana among those kids admitted to the hospital. In the 27 months after Oct. 1, there were 14 cases of accidental marijuana ingestion.

The researchers point out that medical marijuana is more of a threat than weed bought for recreational use, because the THC content is so much stronger.

The 14 kids admitted for marijuana poisoning range in age from eight months old (one of the three children where the source of the marijuana was never discovered) to a 14 year old who ate a marijuana cake. Eight of the children has ingested medical marijuana products: a grandfather's medical marijuana cookie, a parent's medical marijuana cigarette.

Most of the children experienced symptoms like lethargy and dizziness, and most were kept for observation and then discharged. But two of the children were admitted to the pediatric intensive care unit. 

The study also breaks down the number of children admitted for ingesting other drugs, and pro-marijuana advocates would do well to point out that more than three times as many children were seen for acetaminophen poisoning (the active ingredient in Tylenol) than for marijuana over that same 27 month period after October 2009. And the same number of children, 14, were seen for accidental antidepressant ingestion as for marijuana ingestion. 

But the researchers don't come out against the softening of drug laws per se. They argue that medical marijuana products should come with child-resistant packaging (especially since those products tend to be cookies and candy, and especially since child-resistant packaging has been shown to dramatically reduce accidental ingestions). 

And they argue that the "consequences of marijuana exposure in children should be part of the ongoing debate on legalizing marijuana." 

Kate Allen is the Star's science and technology reporter. Find her on Twitter at @katecallen.


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When things are improperly stored kids get access, whether it's booze, cigarettes, or firearms. While it's troublesome anytime a child gets access to an intoxicant I would think an important factor omitted is the consequences of that exposure.

Alcohol could have serious health effects, cannabis will make them sleepy for a day.

I see we are beginning to hit the edge of the anti-cannabis arguments.

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