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More Young Children Being Hospitalized For Ingesting Edibles

Jars of CBD-containing edibles
Hemp-derived CBD products displayed for sale. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

In Virginia, the number of young children who are being hospitalized for ingesting marijuana is growing. And it was rising before the state legalized small amounts of marijuana last month. 

In 2019, Virginia Poison Center reports it received 13 calls related to people ingesting marijuana edibles and having adverse reactions. That number rose to 35 in 2020 and 78 thus far this year. 

The Virginia Department of Health said 43 calls made this year were for children between the ages of 0 and 4.

Dr. Rutherfoord Rose is director of the Virginia Poison Center at VCU Medical Center, which handles calls from central and eastern Virginia.

“We haven’t had a fatality or a child that’s gone into a coma that we’re aware of,” Rose said. “But we have had several children that got agitated, hallucinated, tremors, their heart rate went up. They can get very sleepy so that they’re difficult to arouse.”

Rose said poison control centers across the country have seen this rise, but there may be many more instances that are not reported.

“What we report is just some subset of what’s happening,” he said. “We know it’s not a complete reporting.”

For added perspective, Rose points out that within the first year of Tide Pods coming onto the market, he received more than 130 calls of accidental ingestion. Additional data from the Virginia Health Department shows emergency room or urgent care visits from children 0-4 for detergent ingestion were 56 in 2019, 42 in 2020, and 37 through July of this year. For battery ingestion, the numbers are 72 in 2019, 112 in 2020 and 60 through July of 2021. 

Dr. Sam Wang, a pediatric emergency medicine and toxicology specialist at Children’s Hospital Colorado, said after marijuana was legalized in Colorado in 2012, there was an increase in hospital visits for accidental ingestions and those numbers have continued to increase.

He says the effect on children is much different than on adults.

“Their symptoms last much longer,” Wang said. “They can last anywhere from 6-8 hours to a couple days. And in extreme circumstances, they can be so sedated they sleep into a very deep coma where their breathing is shallow or slow.”

Colorado has since banned gummies in the shape of fruit, people and animals and requires all packaging to prominently display a symbol warning consumers the product contains THC among other measures.

“We’ve had kids on ventilators a few years ago because they got so sick,” Wang said. “And we haven’t had those cases recently. And I think some of that is attributed to public knowledge and education, but also I think some of these package regulations and dose limitations.”

Jenn Michell Pedini with Virginia NORML says the debate about child safety and marijuana legalization is not new. But cannabis products in Virginia are already highly regulated in the medical program and will continue to be highly regulated when made available for recreational purchase in 2024.

“This notion that they’re appealing to children, that hasn’t been a thing for a long time in the United States,” Pedini said. “It’s not going to be. Those lessons were already learned.”

According to the most recent data from the American Association of Poison Control Centers, adults, adolescents and children are most likely to be poisoned by prescription and non-prescription pain relievers, sleeping pills and household products. Forty-three percent of exposures reported to poison control centers involve children under the age of 5.

“The safety profile on cannabis is incredibly high,” Pedini said. “Particularly juxtaposed with things like alcohol or Tide Pods or dishwasher pods. Those are stored under our sink and there’s no safety lock on those.”

They said it’s important to remember the dangers of unregulated marijuana products, which can be laced with other substances that pose severe health risks.

Editor's Note: We received additional state data on other harmful substances ingested by children after publication. That information was added to this report.