Prepare for kids overdosing on pot when it goes legal — for adults — on Jan. 1
Gummies, chocolate bars and brownies are irresistible to kids. And pot-infused treats go down a lot easier than liquor.
Emergency room doctors at the University of Chicago Medical Center have had to intubate kids who could not breathe after overdosing on pot.
Other kids have been treated for severe vomiting or psychotic breaks.
This is something to worry about in Illinois. Starting on Jan. 1, it will be legal for people 21 and older to buy pot here for recreational use. After Colorado legalized recreational pot in 2014, emergency-room visits spiked for kids who overdosed.
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“We will definitely see more of this,” Alison Tothy, an emergency room doctor and associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago Medicine, said of cannabis poisonings in kids. “We are already seeing it, not just in high school students but in young children, including toddlers, who ingest things that seem really tempting to them.”
Most of the overdoses are from edibles, Tothy said.
Gummies, chocolate bars and brownies are irresistible to kids. Back in the 1980s, my friend and I sneaked shots of peppermint schnapps from her parents’ liquor cabinet. It tasted like candy for one second, then felt like it was burning a hole in my throat.
Pot-infused treats, though, go down a lot easier than liquor. And in some homes, they are about to become more accessible.
Hospitals and schools will be on the front lines in dealing with it.
Last week, eight students from two South Side high schools were taken to hospitals after they ate “infused” brownies and gummies and became sick. Police couldn’t say for sure what they were infused with, but a student told Sun-Times reporters that it was marijuana.
“We’ve made an all-out effort on education,” Brian D. Schwartz, deputy executive director and general counsel of the Illinois Principals Association, told me. “With various forms that marijuana takes, it’s difficult to keep policies and handbooks up to date to make sure we know what to look for. Kids are smart. They are bringing marijuana and THC to school in different forms.”
THC stands for tetrahydrocannabinol, the chemical that produces a high from marijuana. Today, there are strains that are far more potent than what was available decades ago and far more dangerous for kids.
Tothy, of the University of Chicago, said the hospital is preparing doctors and nurses for an influx of cases in the emergency room.
“One of the biggest concerns, in the little kids especially, is the amount ingested,” she said. “They eat more than an adult who is using it for a marijuana purpose.”
Studies so far show little or no increase in regular usage by kids in states where recreational pot has been legalized. That doesn’t bring much comfort to Smita Das, an addiction psychiatrist and clinical assistant professor at Stanford University who works on the Council on Addiction Psychiatry for the American Psychiatric Association.
“Knowing how many people I see for cannabis use, I would want to see more data over time,” Das said. “Five years from now, it will be good to see how this plays out.”
Data related to overdoses by kids is more startling. Kids in the Denver area made 777 visits in 2015 to Children’s Hospital Colorado facilities for treatment of cannabis-related symptoms such as vomiting, paranoia and psychosis, the Washington Post reported in June. In 2005, there were 161 visits.
Over in Massachusetts, cannabis-related poison control calls for kids doubled after medical marijuana was legalized, Science Daily reported in August.
Medicinal pot became legal in Illinois in 2014, which could explain why the University of Chicago has seen more cases, anecdotally, of kids overdosing in recent years.
It is common for kids to end up being hospitalized for 24 to 48 hours after visiting the emergency room, Tothy said.
“A lot of these children get extensive workups, unnecessary tests to rule out serious illnesses as well,” she said. “It can look like other things. We don’t know until we get test results back. It’s very scary.”
I wondered aloud to Tothy what would feel worse: depressed breathing or a psychotic breakdown from too much pot.
“To a parent,” she said, “none of it is good.”
Marlen Garcia is a member of the Sun-Times Editorial Board.