Spike in cannabis poisoning in kids a concern for doctors: 'It's candy and it tastes great'

WATCH ABOVE: In Part 3 of Global News' special Cannabis IQ series, Kim Smith reports on how doctors are warning about a spike in cannabis poisoning in kids.

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Cannabis edible products won’t be legal for at least another year, but that hasn’t kept them out of the hands of kids.

On Oct. 2, a two-year-old girl on Vancouver Island was sent to hospital after eating cannabis-infused gummy bears. In July, a four-year-old was rushed to hospital in Halifax after consuming an edible marijuana chocolate bar.

“Unfortunately, it looks like a gummy bear and children will consume it because it’s candy and it tastes great,” Cst. Monika Terragni with Comox RCMP said in regards to the Vancouver Island incident. “The young girl was in the backseat of a vehicle when she started showing signs of medical distress.”

READ MORE: Cannabis legalization means ‘new reality’ for Canadian health care: doctors

Since 2013, an increasing number of kids have ended up in the emergency department because of a non-fatal cannabis overdose.

In the 2017-2018 fiscal year, 582 people under the age of 20 visited an emergency department in either Ontario or Alberta due to cannabis poisoning, according to reportable numbers from the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI). In the year prior, there were 364 visits and in 2013-2014 there were 298 visits.

In 2017-2018, 24 children under the age of five in Alberta and Ontario ended up in the emergency department due to cannabis poisoning.

According to the CIHI, ‘poisoning’ is the appropriate term to use versus ‘overdose’. The numbers for other provinces were not available.

“Edibles are this newer form of cannabis. Years ago, people smoked it more exclusively. So it’s this idea that I can eat a gummy or a brownie or whatever. I just think there’s not a built-in appreciation for how to do that in a safe manner,” Dr. Michael Szabo, an emergency physician at Toronto’s University Health Network, said.

“Already we’re seeing an uptake in cases for sure.”

Szabo said that because of the delayed onset with edibles, it’s easier to take too much compared to smoking cannabis. He’s concerned the number of emergency room visits will continue to increase, post legalization.

“There’s going to be more cases, just because of that novelty factor,” Szabo said. “If something looks like a little bunny rabbit, it’s hard to imagine that could actually make you feel really bad. It actually can.”

READ MORE: Expert at Alberta symposium concerned about cannabis’ effects on memory, language, mood

Come legalization day, Oct. 17, edible products won’t be legal, which means a lack of regulation around labeling and dosage.

“Edibles are actually illegal. So how do you know that the label is accurate?” Szabo said.

“It’s often not clearly marked on the package, what a serving size is.”

Watch below: The chief of pediatrics at Halifax’s IWK Children’s Hospital discusses the harm that edible marijuana can have on children.

Every poison centre in Canada has reported increased exposures to cannabis, including for those under age 18, according to Dr. Margaret Thompson, medical director of Ontario, Manitoba and Nunavut poison centres, and president of the Canadian Association of Poison Control Centres.

“Our biggest message is keep them away from children and out of sight,” Thompson said.

A study by the Ontario, Manitoba and Nunavut poison centres shows that from 2013 to 2017, there was a 50 per cent increase in calls concerning cannabis exposure for toddlers to those age 18.

Companies are betting big on edible pot products ahead of legalization

Thompson said she’s also concerned about a lack of regulation.

“Usually these symptoms are short lived and last for 10 to 12 hours, but we don’t have a way of predicting if it’s your child who’s going to go on to have a seizure or a heart racing or some blood pressure abnormality,” Thompson said.

“These are things that are attractive to children in the beginning because they look like candy that have always been a reward for them.”

Child-resistant packaging

The legalization of edibles in some other areas of world has spurred a new industry of child-resistant packaging. Bill Ludlow is the president and CEO of CRATIV Packaging, a company that creates cases for people to store cannabis edibles.

Products need to pass a certification process to be considered child-resistant.

“It’s a challenging design to make something that kids can’t get into but adults are able to, which is very important,” Ludlow said.

As legalization nears, the hardest marijuana question for universities is edibles

Ludlow said there will likely be a learning curve for people to adjust to the products.

“You’re going to see packages and for consumers there’s likely going to be some frustration to learn how to use it,” he said. “When the push and turn medicine bottles came out that wasn’t intuitive then either, but now everyone knows how to do that because it’s been out on the market for so long.”

His advice for parents is not to rely only on education and the environment when it comes to preventing kids from consuming cannabis.

“We’re all human and we know that sometimes even if we’re doing our best to keep something out of children’s hands that you can make a mistake and you may forget to hide it one day,” he said.

“Make sure you keep your cannabis in child-resistant packaging.”

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