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Encore: More than 3,000 young kids accidentally ate pot edibles in 2021, study says

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The number of states that have legalized recreational use of cannabis more than doubled in the last five years. Now a new study finds that, between 2017 and 2021, there was a dramatic spike in the number of very young children eating edible forms of marijuana, with many of them ending up in hospitals. As NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee reports, the findings have physicians and other health experts concerned.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Back in 2019, Dr. Marit Tweet, an emergency medicine doctor, was starting a fellowship at the Illinois Poison Control Center.

MARIT TWEET: The big buzz at that time was that cannabis was going to be legalized for recreational adult use January 1, 2020.

CHATTERJEE: Now that Illinois was changing its law, she looked at studies from other states that had already legalized the drug. Some had found unintentional health impacts on kids. One study in Colorado documented a rise in the number of children accidentally consuming edible products. So Tweet wanted to know if this would also happen nationally as more states legalized the drug. And she was most concerned about kids 5 years and younger.

TWEET: This age group accounts for about 40% of all calls to poison centers nationally.

CHATTERJEE: And it's the age when children start to explore their surroundings.

TWEET: They can get into things. And you can't really rationalize with them, hey, you shouldn't get into this. This might be dangerous to you. They think it looks like candy, and they want to eat it.

CHATTERJEE: So Tweet and her colleagues looked at information from the National Poison Data System. They found that back in 2017, there were just over 200 reported cases of accidental consumption of edibles by children in this age group. But in 2021, the number had shot up to more than 3,000.

TWEET: An increase of 1,375%.

CHATTERJEE: The vast majority of the kids had found the drug in their own home. While most kids suffered mild impacts, about 1 in 5 was hospitalized. Dr. Andrew Monte is an emergency medicine doctor at University of Colorado Hospital who wasn't involved in the new study. He says he and his colleagues see these cases in their emergency department.

ANDREW MONTE: We do have these children come in several times per month.

CHATTERJEE: He urges that if parents suspect their child ate an edible, they should take the child to a doctor right away.

MONTE: There are some patients that actually have airway obstruction and need to be in the ICU or put on a ventilator.

CHATTERJEE: The new study, published in Pediatrics, found that a significant minority of kids were admitted to an ICU. Dr. Nora Volkow directs the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

NORA VOLKOW: So it's not just the issue that there are more poisons of children consuming cannabis but that those consumptions appear to be more serious.

CHATTERJEE: She says the findings raise the issue of how these edibles are packaged and marketed.

VOLKOW: If you've ever been curious, go to a dispensary or a store where they sell cannabis products, which, of course, me being a curious person, I've done. And the edibles are extremely appealing in terms of the packaging, the colors.

CHATTERJEE: So she says parents and caregivers should take note of the new study's findings.

VOLKOW: If they are going to be consuming edibles, then it is their responsibility to ensure that those edibles are not at the reach of their children.

CHATTERJEE: Volkow suggests storing them in childproof containers or just putting them away in places where kids are less likely to find them. Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rhitu Chatterjee is a health correspondent with NPR, with a focus on mental health. In addition to writing about the latest developments in psychology and psychiatry, she reports on the prevalence of different mental illnesses and new developments in treatments.