A skyrocketing number of kids in the three states are inadvertently ingesting marijuana edibles, and lawmakers say there’s a void in New York’s emerging cannabis regulations that aren’t helping the situation.
The scary trend started before New York state legalized recreational marijuana in March, going from six children in the New York metropolitan area who were poisoned by edibles in 2018, to 32 in 2019 and 127 in 2020, according to regional poison control officials.
“Sometimes that’s in the form of candy and gummies, cookies and brownies. There are many shapes out there,” said Dr. Ethan Wiener, director of pediatric emergency medicine at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone.
Two-thirds of those children are under the age of 5 — and the number is on track to be just as high this year.
Numbers are also on the rise in the state, and in New Jersey, where their poison control center reports that the number of children aged 5 and under ingesting edibles has more than doubled since 2018.
The numbers are also rising nationally. According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, its members faced 598 indoor exposures in children under the age of 12 in 2018. By 2020, that had increased to 2,473.
The number of pediatric THC exposures counted as “potentially toxic” has increased 20-fold in the past five years, the association said.
The I-Team has learned that dozens of local children have ended up in hospitals in the area.
The numbers are alarming—but not surprising to pediatricians.
Wiener of NYU Langone said the hospital treats toddlers at least a few times a month for toxic levels of THC (the active ingredient in marijuana).
While most gummies in legalized stores have a “beginner” adult dose of about 5-10 milligrams of THC, Wiener said they’ve treated children who have ingested up to 200 milligrams. One child eventually had seizures the magnitude of the overdose.
The fallout can also be seen at Cohen Children’s Hospital on Long Island, where doctors have routinely started testing THC when diagnosing a child who comes in lethargic or unresponsive.
“The most serious cases are usually when a child stops breathing or slows breathing where it is life-threatening and they eventually need to be placed on ventilators until the effects of the medication wear off,” said Dr. James Schneider, an emergency room physician at Cohen Children’s Hospital.
There are no retail sales for recreational use yet in New York, but when that starts, pediatricians fear the growing problem will get worse.
“It was the jump from year to year that scared me. I had never heard of it until you got in touch,” said Senator Liz Krueger, who sponsored the bill decriminalizing marijuana in New York.
Krueger said New York’s law, like some other states, was designed to protect children — in part by banning “packaging, labels, shapes and products made attractive to children.”
But there are unresolved questions, such as how the state will define “appealing to children.” And if edibles are banned in shapes like gummy bears, what about other brightly colored shapes?
“Everyone is waiting for us to set the traffic rules,” Krueger said.
The senator places much of the blame for that lack of regulation on Governor Andrew Cuomo, who faces multiple investigations on multiple fronts.
“I feel like the governor is dealing with a lot of other issues that he faces,” said Krueger, who accused Cuomo of failing to get the state’s Office of Cannabis Management and governance up and running.
That council would be responsible for developing the detailed regulations for the industry — and with the legal market on hold, Krueger said, the illegal market is filling the void.
Cuomo’s office said work to keep the cannabis management office going was well underway.
“New York is actively working to ensure that the Office of Cannabis Management and the Cannabis Control Board can begin implementing a safe, equitable and transparent cannabis industry for adult use as soon as possible. As part of this process, we are working on appointing individuals with different experience and subject matter expertise to both entities.Once the Cannabis Control Board is installed, the Bureau can be officially formed,” a spokesperson said.
Cuomo’s office also pointed out that all edibles consumed in New York are still illegal under the Krueger-sponsored bill, meaning the products are illegal or come from other states, rather than falling through regulatory loopholes.