With the legalization of edible cannabis, health experts at the IWK Health Centre are concerned with the impact widespread availability of products will have on children, youth and newborns in the Maritimes. It is expected that edible cannabis in the form of candy and baked goods will be available for purchase as early as December 2019.
“It is important that the public understand the unique risks to children and youth with respect to edibles”, says IWK Health Promotion Specialist Sarah Blades. “There is still a great deal that we don’t know about cannabis use and the long-term impacts. What we do know suggests that we should proceed with caution. We do know that cannabis exposure in children and youth under the age of 25 can impair healthy brain development.”
Strict federal regulations have been released regarding requirements for labeling edible cannabis and restrictions on marketing. This is a positive step, according to Blades; “Cannabis edibles will be packaged and marketed in Canada under strict regulations that reduce the effects of attractive marketing, to which youth are particularly vulnerable.” That said, once edibles are out of the packaging – they can be mistaken for their non-cannabis containing equivalents.
Hard to tell the difference
Parents and other adults need to remember that cannabis edibles are the same sweet snacks that most kids love such as brownies, cookies and candy bars-except that they contain cannabis. A child can’t see the difference between a food product with cannabis and the same product without cannabis.
“Visually, it is very difficult if not impossible to determine whether a candy or a cookie contains cannabis” says Laurie Mosher clinical leader of the IWK Regional Poison Centre. “Since the federal legalization of cannabis, unintentional poisonings from exposure to cannabis have already increased in the data we have via the IWK Regional Poison Centre.”
More sensitive to effects
“Children are more sensitive to the effects of the active ingredients in cannabis,” says Mosher. “Parents may not realize that children have eaten a toxic amount of a cannabis product until they have symptoms such as profound drowsiness and other serious symptoms.”
With regards to prevention of edible cannabis related harms for children and youth in the Maritimes, Mosher’s message is simple. “Treat edible cannabis products as though you would medication or poisons, as they could cause great harm to a child.”
May harm the fetus
Cannabis oils, extracts and sweets are a discreet ingestion method and are often preferred by women, making potential exposure while pregnant or breastfeeding to be of particular concern.
“The perception that edible cannabis is a safer option than other methods of consumption is misleading”, says Dr. Heather Scott, Obstetrical Clinical Advisor for the Reproductive Care Program of Nova Scotia (RCP). “Frequent cannabis use during pregnancy may significantly impact the health of the fetus. The initial evidence-based, peer-reviewed research into the health effects of THC use in pregnancy has revealed an association with low birth weight and preterm birth.”
Furthermore, THC (a psychoactive compound in cannabis that produces a high) accumulates in the fatty tissues of people who consume cannabis, including breast tissue. THC is found in the breastmilk of those who consume cannabis, and so until the THC is eliminated from the breastmilk and breast tissue, babies or children drinking this breastmilk will likely be exposed to THC.
“Prenatal and early childhood exposure to cannabis can alter brain development, which can impact behaviour, cognition, and academic achievement as the child grows,” says Dr. Balpreet Singh, Neonatal Clinical Advisor for RCP. “We are still learning so much about the effects of cannabis on the fetus and breastfeeding child, but what we have learned so far causes us to be concerned. Breastfeeding is so beneficial for babies of all gestational ages and for breastfeeding women, and so it is really important that parents and health professionals all have as much evidence-based information as possible”.
Keeping out of reach
Young children explore the world by using their senses, and by putting things in their mouths. Further compounding the problem is that the effects of edible cannabis can take hours to manifest, meaning that there is no immediate feedback such as an unpleasant sensation or taste to indicate to children to stop eating an item that contains cannabis.
“Adults who choose to use cannabis or liquid nicotine need to protect children in their homes,” says Julie Harrington of the IWK’s Child Safety Link. “It’s crucial to store all cannabis products in a locked space or container, out of the reach of kids.”