Pediatric poisoning from cannabis edibles at home—for a lot of parents, it’s a nightmare scenario.
On July 16, a group at a barbecue at a house in Victoria, B.C. noticed that some of their children were acting strangely. When they questioned them, the kids admitted they had found candy in a room in the house and had gobbled it down without asking for permission first.
They rushed five children under the age of 10 to the hospital, who were observed and deemed okay to be released that day. They also called the police.
“The use of cannabis products is permitted under provincial and federal law in Canada,” Victoria Police advised in a press release.
“However, given the close resemblance of some products to non-cannabis products, officers are urging those who use cannabis products to safely store them out of the reach of inquisitive children.”
After looking more closely at the candy packaging, the parents were horrified to discover the candy was THC-infused “Stoner Patch Kids,” unregulated cannabis-infused edibles that come in familiar packaging that looks a lot like Sour Patch Kids.
It’s not the first time. Some kids haven’t been as lucky, and have experienced much more severe reactions.
Illegal edibles to blame for most pediatric poisoinings
A recent study by researchers at Toronto’s Sick Kids Hospital published in Clinical Toxicology concludes that “recreational cannabis legalization is associated with higher rates of ICU admission for intoxication among children compared with the pre-legalization period.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, edibles—which often come in delicious candy or baked good form—are largely to blame, and “legalization may have increased the availability and accessibility of these products to children,” write the authors.
Researchers examined the rates and cases of kids who had come to emergency rooms at pediatric hospitals pre-legalization for cannabis poisonings pre-legalization and compared them to peri-post legalization rates. The overall rate of kids going to the hospital for pot did not change at all.
“The median monthly number of cannabis-related presentations did not differ between the time periods,” the study concludes.
“What’s interesting is that cannabis edibles weren’t even legal in Canada until October of 2019 and they weren’t on shelves until December of that year,” says Tabitha Fritz, the creator of the Level UP Budtender Education Program and the co-founder and CEO of Fritz’s Cannabis Company, a legacy edibles company that is nearly ready to relaunch in Canada as a licensed brand.
The pre-legalization period ran from Jan. 1 2008 to April 12, 2017, and the peri-post legalization period was defined as April 13, 2017, to Dec. 31, 2019.
That means that while pediatric poisonings may have become more severe since legalization and ICU admission rates increased, it’s likely that most, if not all of the edibles poisonings accounted for in the study should be attributed to unregulated edibles. They weren’t for sale yet.
Consumers seek out higher dose edibles in the unregulated market
As a legacy entrepreneur who started in 2015, Fritz says she has seen a lot of unregulated edibles brands on the market. Some are more scrupulous than others.
“Their main motivation is money,” she says. “They’re not considering access or safety or helping parents keep it away from kids or education. They’re just looking to sell a product that consumers want to buy.”
She also acknowledges that, since licensed edibles brands have hit the market, consumers still want to buy them.
In the legal market, licensed brands are limited to 10 mg of THC per package, can’t use colors, characters, or branding that could be remotely alluring to kids. Meanwhile, illicit vendors are still fulfilling the demand for fun, flavourful and potent edibles that come in colorful packages and don’t cost a fortune.
“There are so many people out there who say, ‘I’m not going to spend $8 for 10 milligrams of THC, I’m going to have to buy five of those,’” she says, referring to consumers with a higher tolerance who require more THC to feel its effects. “‘And I don’t want to spend $40 to get high one time.’”
However, it doesn’t sound like Health Canada has plans to increase the potency limits of edibles to lure more price-conscious or experienced consumers over to the regulated market.
Health Canada ultimately wants to reduce accidental consumption
In a statement provided by senior media relations officer Tammy Jarbeau, Health Canada agrees that a majority or all of the edibles poisonings in the study should be attributed to unregulated products.
In addition to tight restrictions on packaging, licensed edibles have to be child-proof with a large THC symbol and warning labels.
Health Canada has also launched numerous educational campaigns in efforts to warn parents about higher potencies in unregulated edibles and how to store them.
And there are hefty consequences for those who contravene the Cannabis Act: they could face a maximum penalty of a $5 million fine, three years in jail, or both.
“These measures aim to reduce the risks of accidental consumption and overconsumption as well as reduce the appeal of cannabis products to young persons while providing consumers with the information they need to make informed decisions before using cannabis,” they said.
Health Canada has also issued advisories to health care practitioners and the public to raise awareness of the higher potencies of unregulated edibles, how to store them properly and the higher risk they say they can pose to kids who accidentally ingest them.
Misleading media and police statements are fear-mongering
Despite these efforts, it’s not clear if the messages are resonating with key players like the police and the media.
In the case of the Victoria poisonings, for example, the police press release fails to highlight that the edibles are unregulated and have higher potency (and insinuates legal edibles are to blame).
A scathing editorial in the local Times Colonist newspaper followed, wrongly declaring that “Police have said they cannot lay charges because federal and provincial laws do not prohibit packaging that resembles non-cannabis products,” without acknowledging the existence of the Cannabis Act and its punitive provisions designed to protect kids. “This is plainly unacceptable.”
But NORML Canada’s Alex Krause wonders if the efforts to educate have successfully reached parents, despite the misinformation—and that the troubling stats could show that parents are more willing and less fearful about bringing their kids into the ER for accidental cannabis poisonings than they were pre-legalization.
“Obviously it’s a concerning trend and if kids are getting their hands on edibles, that’s a problem,” he says.
“But the fact that parents are able to identify and then realize the severity and bring them to a hospital is a good thing. Parents are more aware now than they were in the pre-legalization period of what intoxication looks like.”
And while unregulated edibles are more potent and often come in appealing packaging, all edibles require special care if kids are around.
Talking to kids about cannabis
And when kids get older and it’s more difficult to hide anything, Tabitha Fritz, who parents three kids with her partner, advises that it could be time for a conversation.
“My kids all know that if you choose to consume cannabis, your brain will basically abandon the connections that it was preparing to make that day,” she says, referring to the effects cannabis has on the developing brain.
“And my kids, being smart kids who want to keep getting smarter, they say, ‘Oh, you know what, maybe that’s not the right choice for me.’”