Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, is finding its way into the hands and mouths of young children via products packaged and labeled in ways that bear striking resemblance to famous candy and other snack products known to appeal to children.
Between 2017 and 2019, more than 4,000 calls were made to U.S. poison control centers to report ingestion, inhalation, or other direct physical exposure to marijuana among young children, with nearly half of those calls involving edibles. In the first half of 2021, the number of reported childhood exposures was 2,622.
A recent study found numerous examples of “copycat and lookalike edible cannabis product packaging.” Many of these products had alarmingly high THC content or multiple THC doses within a single package.
Oklahoma is seeing a large increase in children under 5 overdosing on THC. Three toddlers in Virginia were hospitalized after eating THC-laced goldfish crackers. The attorney general of New York warned that if a child were to consume a bag of a lookalike Cheetos snack containing 600 milligrams of THC, the child would be consuming 120 times the maximum legal adult serving.
Others are also raising the alarm. A group of consumer packaged goods companies recently urged Congress to act by amending the SHOP SAFE Act to close loopholes that allow companies to market THC edibles in ways that mirror the packaging and labeling of popular child-appealing food brands. In June, the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning about the health threat to children posed by these products. Six days later, more than 20 state attorneys general pleaded with Congress to crack down on copycat THC edibles.
Of the many harms associated with children and addictive substances, exposures among young children might be one of the most consequential — and easiest to avoid. For a young child, ingesting even a small dose of THC can be toxic, leading to loss of coordination, lethargy, agitation, difficulty breathing, and more.
Policymakers increasingly require enhanced child safety packaging for potentially harmful substances, especially prescription opioids. But when it comes to marijuana edibles, the safety landscape is precarious. And the protection afforded by child-resistant packaging is effective only if the products are kept inside the packaging and out of the sight and reach of young children.
Policymakers on the state and federal levels need to act to better protect children from the risks associated with ingesting THC products. They should get the facts out through population-wide awareness campaigns targeted to parents and other caregivers, educators, and health care professionals. States enacting or considering liberalizing their marijuana or other drug use laws should simultaneously mandate strong child-resistant packaging requirements and require that products be packaged and sold in small, nonfatal doses.
The most urgent need is effectively clamping down on — not just warning about — child-appealing packaging and marketing that lure children into ingesting these products. At a minimum, all products containing THC should be sold in plain, opaque packaging with clear warning labels on them.
Lax or nonexistent restrictions on marijuana edibles make it far too easy for young children to get their hands on these products and ingest them, often before an adult even realizes that the product contains THC.
That’s why, given the murky legal landscape and current gaps in regulations, the public health burden still falls on parents and other caregivers to ensure children’s safety. Adults who buy marijuana edibles need to store them far out of a child’s sight and reach, and properly dispose of them when they are no longer needed.
In this new era of marijuana edibles, protecting children from the harms of addictive substances must begin not when they are teenagers, but when they’re born.
If you suspect that a child has consumed THC, contact the Poison Control hotline by calling 800-222-1222, texting POISON to 797979, or going online at Poison Control. If a child is unresponsive or having trouble breathing, call 911.
Linda Richter is the vice president of prevention research and analysis at Partnership to End Addiction, a New York-based nonprofit.
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