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Oops, Young Kids Exposed to Marijuana Unintentionally

Young kids and marijuana exposure

Among the unintentional consequences of the passage of looser marijuana possession laws in Colorado and Washington state and the decriminalization of medical marijuana in others are cases of unintentional exposure of the drug to young children. A new study appearing in JAMA Pediatrics notes what might be called the oops factor, or when young kids are exposed to marijuana and ingest it unknowingly.

Marijuana brownies anyone?

Times have changed. In decades past, one way people enjoyed marijuana was to secretly bake brownies laced with the drug. Today it is legal in some states to purchase medical marijuana sold in soft drinks, candies, and various baked products, especially in Washington state.

The changing scene in marijuana use has meant people need to explore the unintentional consequences as well, and that includes accidental ingestion of marijuana by young children. In this new study, researchers report on 14 cases of unintentional marijuana exposure among patients younger than 12 years old in a children’s hospital emergency department after October 1, 2009.

Eight of the 14 cases involved exposure to medical marijuana, and seven of the children were exposed to the drug in food products. A challenge facing doctors is possible reluctance among parents or other family members to reveal that a child has been exposed to marijuana.

Although the subjects in this study were from only one hospital, the findings are a wakeup call for physicians, especially those in states where medical marijuana has been decriminalized, to be aware of possible unintentional exposure to the drug among children.

In fact, the authors of the study recommended that doctors “be familiar with the symptoms of marijuana ingestion,” especially those who practice in states where medical marijuana has been decriminalized. Parents and other caregivers are also urged to treat medical marijuana in any form as they would other drugs: locked up and kept away from young people.

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In the study, the most serious symptoms of unintentional marijuana exposure among the children included lethargy or drowsiness with respiratory insufficiency. One 8-month-old child experienced rigidity and a 12-year-old child had dizziness.

More opinions on unintentional marijuana exposure
In the same issue of JAMA Pediatrics, several other experts weighed in on the topic of marijuana exposure in children. Sharon Levy, MD, MPH, from Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital, noted in her editorial that “Physicians have a key role to play in educating our young patients and their families about the health consequences of marijuana use regardless of its legal status.”

In another editorial, William Hurley, MD, from the University of Washington and Washington Poison Center and Susan Mazor, MD, from Seattle Children’s Hospital, commented that the absorption of delta-9-tetrahydrocannibinol (THC) in marijuana “produces stimulation with hallucinations and illusions followed by sedation,” which are symptoms of which medical personnel should be aware.

A growing number of people are turning to medical marijuana, especially since 19 states have now (as of May 2013) approved its use. Fueling the use of medical marijuana—and theoretically the potential for unintentional exposure—are studies that have found cannabis to be helpful in managing diseases as diverse as inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, cancer pain, type 2 diabetes, and bipolar disorder, among others.

Although the number of cases of unintentional exposure to marijuana among children may be small, it is a situation medical personnel, parents, and caregivers (including grandparents) should be aware of so affected young people can be identified and treated properly. The number of young people exposed to marijuana unintentionally may rise as more and more states legalize and decriminalize the drug.

Hurley W and Mazor S. Anticipated medical effects on children: a poison center perspective. JAMA Pediatrics Published online May 27, 2013. DOI: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2013.2273
Levy S. Effects of marijuana policy on children and adolescents. JAMA Pediatrics Published online May 27, 2013. DOI:10.100/jamapediarics.2013.2270
Wang GS et al. Pediatric marijuana exposures in a medical marijuana state. JAMA Pediatrics Published online May 27, 2013. DOI:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2013.140

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