Cannabis edibles: Keep kids safe from adult ‘treats’

A cannabis-containing chocolate bar, one example of an edible a child could easily mistake for candy.
Edibles are not meant to be eaten the way children typically eat snacks. Most children, including older kids, who come across a candy bar will eat the whole thing. (Image: AdobeStock)

Candy and chips aren’t necessarily for kids anymore. These days, a chocolate bar, gummy, or bag of cheesy treats may contain a very adult ingredient: cannabis (also known as marijuana). As more states legalize marijuana for medical and recreational use, more of these potent treats are finding their ways into children’s mouths. While older kids and teens may be curious about “getting high,” younger children are more apt to mistake edibles for actual snacks.

“Unintentional cannabis overdoses in children of all ages have risen in states where marijuana is legal,” says Dr. Lois Lee of the Injury Prevention Program at Boston Children’s. She is one of many pediatric doctors around the country strongly encouraging parents to keep edibles and other cannabis-containing products far from children. Even older kids who understand the concept of edibles may eat multiple doses while waiting for the effects to kick in. “These products need to be handled with the same caution as medications or alcohol in the home.”

Here, Dr. Lee, who treats children in the Division of Emergency Medicine, answers questions about edibles, how they can affect kids, and what parents can do to keep children safe.

Why is cannabis sold in candy and other junk food?

Many edibles are sweet or salty in order to mask the flavor of cannabis. Unfortunately, that makes them very appealing to young children who wouldn’t otherwise be tempted by marijuana.

How does cannabis affect children?

A young child or teenager’s response to a small amount of cannabis will be similar an adult’s; they’ll appear high. Most of the time, children who eat cannabis-containing edibles don’t have a serious reaction. But some do end up in the emergency department and some have to be hospitalized. Young children may become very sleepy, sometimes to the point that they’re not breathing sufficiently. In some serious cases, children can have seizures, although this is uncommon.

Are edibles more potent than other forms of cannabis?

While potency varies from product to product, cannabis in edibles tends to be more concentrated. One of the big concerns with edibles and children is dose. The dose in a single gummy or square of chocolate, for instance, is much stronger for a small child than for a full-grown adult.

And edibles are not meant to be eaten the way children typically eat snacks. Most children, including older kids, who come across a candy bar will eat the whole thing. But that bar may have a large amount of cannabis. In contrast, adults generally won’t eat an entire cannabis-containing chocolate bar at one time.

Massachusetts law mandates childproof packaging for cannabis-containing products. Does this reduce kids’ risk?

Yes. Just like childproof caps on medications and cleaning solvents, childproof packaging makes it harder for young children to access cannabis-containing edibles.

Unfortunately, even though the law says these products must be sold in childproof containers, producers don’t necessarily have to package them that way. It therefore can fall to store owners to put them in some kind of childproof bag, but this may not happen 100 percent of the time. When it doesn’t, consumers will leave the store with cannabis in packaging even a younger child could easily open.

Another issue is that some edibles come in packages that look very similar to childhood snacks. By law, edible packaging must include a symbol indicating that the product contains marijuana. However, most children who happen upon a bag of candy or chips won’t look for that symbol — they certainly won’t recognize it.

How can parents reduce their children’s risk?

With young children, the goal is to prevent an unintentional exposure. With older children who may want to see what it feels like to get high, it’s a matter of preventing intentional use. Parents should make sure to keep any edibles or cannabis locked in a cabinet where young children and curious middle and high schoolers cannot access them.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse offers tips on talking with kids about marijuana.

It’s also important to think about the homes your child visits, including friends, relatives, and grandparents. Before a child’s visit, parents should ask an adult if they have edibles or any other cannabis-containing products in the house and how they are secured. This is just like asking about car seats before a child rides in someone else’s car. It’s all about being proactive for your child’s safety.

What if an older child insists that since marijuana is legal in their state, they should be allowed to use it?

There are things that adults can do legally that children can’t do, and this is one of them. The legal age for both alcohol and marijuana in Massachusetts is 21. But like anything, parents need to have an open dialogue about these substances with their kids starting at an early age.

With young kids, it’s a matter of explaining why they shouldn’t access medications or other potentially toxic substances.

With older kids, these conversations will help prepare them to make their own wise choices as they mature and become independent.

Learn more about the Injury Prevention Program and Division of Emergency Medicine at Boston Children’s.

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