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Doctors warn Colorado toddlers increasingly exposed to recreational marijuana

By: Ben Guarino, The Washington Post
July 26, 2016 Updated: July 26, 2016 at 11:48 am

She kept the marijuana cookies in the freezer. Not because the edibles were better chilled, but because the ice box was supposed to be too tough a nut for her children to crack.

The Denver woman’s 2.5-year-old toddler proved her wrong. He dragged a chair across the room.

First she saw her child vacating the scene. Then the bottle of strawberry vodka leaking on the kitchen floor. Then “she noticed her son was not acting right and appeared to be sleepy,” according to the police affidavit obtained by Denver’s ABC 7 News.

Denitra Vigil, 25 years old in March 2011, was charged with misdemeanor child abuse after she brought her son to a Denver-area hospital. His urine tested positive for THC, marijuana’s primary psychoactive compound. Vigil told authorities the boy removed the “special cookies” from a plastic baggie, ate an unknown number, returned the remainder to the freezer and slipped into a daze. Vigil was released on a $10,000 bond.

Vigil is far from the first or last Colorado parent to have a child fall ill after ingesting recreational marijuana. Most incidents play out in the same way: accidental exposure, followed by lethargy that passes within a matter of hours. Long-term effects of such marijuana exposure are understudied, points out the Children’s Hospital of Colorado. More severe injuries to children — seizures, comas and respiratory problems — do rarely occur, as The Washington Post reported previously, often a result of high accidental doses compounded by a child’s small size.

Many marijuana edibles are made to be eaten in limited portions. As Kari L. Franson, associate dean at the University of Colorado Skaggs School of Pharmacy, said to the New York Times on Monday: “But what kid doesn’t eat an entire brownie?”

In the five years since the case of the freezer cookies, as a study published Monday in the journal JAMA Pediatrics demonstrated, similar events have been on the rise. The scientists reviewed admissions to Children’s Hospital Colorado and calls to poison control centers in the state from January 2009 to December 2015. Marijuana-related visits and calls ticked upward in the wake of Colorado’s recreational weed legalization, the pediatricians say.

The researchers, all based in Colorado, predicted that there would be a bump after the Colorado law took effect in 2014, said Genie Roosevelt, a Denver Health Medical Center pediatrician and study author, in an interview with Live Science.

“What we didn’t anticipate,” she said, “is how much it was going to go up.”

It is true that, for Colorado children younger than 10, hospital visits related to marijuana nearly doubled, when the rate two years before the 2014 legalization was compared with the two years after legalization. Though the increase was large, the actual hospitalization rate is still small. On average, 2.3 children per 100,000 population were hospitalized, up from 1.2 children per 100,000 before recreational marijuana was approved. Regional poison control cases increased from nine in 2009 to 47 in 2015.

The vast majority of children hospitalized did not show lasting injury, though four suffered severe effects. An 11-month-old whose urine tested positive died after arriving unconscious at the Colorado hospital; any link between the death and marijuana was not clear, the Denver Post reported.

In about half of the cases overall, the offending substance was an edible.

“The scary thing about this stuff is it looks like breakfast items or dessert items or soda pop,” Sgt. Jim Gerhardt, of the Colorado Drug Investigators Association, told ABC 7 at the time of the freezer cookies incident. “So, the element of confusion for kids is tremendous.”

As The Post noted in 2014, considering how low the pre-2014 baseline of hospitalization rates was, it would be more surprising if legalization did not trigger a bump. Risk is a function of hazard and exposure — which is why diaper cream, far more prevalent around young children than marijuana, contributed to more than 100 times more poisonings than the drug in 2012.

Alaska, Oregon, Washington state and D.C. have joined Colorado in legalizing recreational marijuana. Twenty other states allow medical marijuana use, and several others are mulling allowing recreational use as well. As legal prohibitions against marijuana wane, debate around how to market the drug is increasing.

Roosevelt told Live Science that the way Colorado’s marijuana-infused treats are packaged, in vibrantly hued palettes, can be “very enticing to kids.”

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