IWK identifies challenges with upcoming cannabis legalization

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On October 17, 2018, recreational cannabis will be legal in Canada. Although cannabis edibles will not be legal for sale at that time, edibles will be available through the personal use of cannabis products as adults will be able to make their own cannabis-infused foods and beverages.

“Our Emergency Department has managed a number of young children who were accidentally exposed to cannabis over the last few months,” says Dr. Shannon MacPhee, chief of the IWK Health Centre Emergency Department. “Some of these young children have been poisoned enough to require intubation and intensive care.  Children can become seriously unwell with exposure to cannabis.”

The presence of cannabis at home places children at risk of unintentional exposures and could result in unintentional poisoning or other serious health concerns. In the past ten years cannabis related calls to the IWK Regional Poison Centre have more than doubled from 36 in 2007 to 106 in 2017. In the United States, between 2006 and 2013, the rate of exposures in children increased significantly by 147.5 per cent, largely attributable to States that had legalized medicinal marijuana. Colorado, for example, showed an increase in the number of emergency department visits of children due to ingestion, the source being predominantly edibles.

“Young children are naturally curious and are at particular risk for poisoning because they explore their environment by putting objects in their mouths,” says Dr. MacPhee. Children have closer contact with their environment than adults and spend a large portion of their time in the home. Young children explore their environment by crawling on the floor and ground, putting their fingers in their mouths, touching and tasting things without knowing if they are harmful. Also, their motors skills are changing quickly at this age and they start climbing. This changes what children can reach and how quickly they can reach for objects.

“Young children are naturally curious and are at particular risk for poisoning because they explore their environment by putting objects in their mouths.”

Young children are also more vulnerable to poisoning because of their light weight. For example, an adult dose of medication can be fatal to a small child.  Children can also be more sensitive to certain harmful substances because of their stage of development. Young children are at risk of developing significant symptoms following cannabis ingestion such as coma, significant motor impairment, and tremors.  Early cannabis use by children or youth also negatively impacts brain development and are associated with long-lasting problems such as psychosis and problems with cognitive functioning.

Where legal in the United States cannabis edibles are often manufactured or made my users in the form of candy and sweets increasing their appeal to children.  “We are always surprised by how indistinguishable homemade cannabis products are from common treats like brownies or gummy bears,” says Dr. MacPhee.

Child Safety Link at the IWK suggests a number of ways to reduce the risk of accidental ingestion of cannabis products by children.

  • Ensure cannabis and cannabis products are stored in child resistant containers to avoid unintentional ingestion.
  • Change how you store cannabis and cannabis products as children get older.  Safe storage around young children may not stop older children or teens
  • Put cannabis products away every time after use, even if you plan on using again later. Always dispose of waste products like ashes and unfinished joints.
  • Request that your guests store any purses, coats, or bags containing cannabis products in a secure place while they are in your home.

Talk to your school aged children about cannabis edibles and warn them against trying treats or snacks at a friend’s home without adult permission (to prevent the unintentional consumption of cannabis).

Child Safety Link (CSL) is an injury prevention program at the IWK Health Centre dedicated to reducing the incidence and severity of unintentional injury to children and youth in the Maritimes. CSL is committed to working with community organizations, governments and other partners to ensure children are as safe as necessary at home, on the road and at play.  The team does this through capacity building & partnerships; communication and public relations; advocacy and healthy public policy; and research and evaluation.Visit childsafetylink.ca for more information.

The IWK Regional Poison Centre (IWK RPC) provides timely and current information regarding toxicological care for all of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. They also provide consult services for health care professionals in New Brunswick concerning the management of the poisoned patient in a health care setting. The IWK RPC provides a 24-hour phone consultation service to both the public and health care professionals and provides information on a real or potential exposure to toxins. The IWK RPC can be reached at 1-800-565-8161. Visit www.iwkpoisoncentre.ca for more information.