The effort to legalize recreational marijuana in Maine took a dramatic turn recently when the state’s top attorney asserted that children could legally possess pot if the measure passes.
While that question still hangs in the air, children already have access to pot — if not legally.
Many fear teenagers will toke up in droves in the wake of legalization. But they aren’t, at least so far in other states where weed is legal. The data show they’re decidedly apathetic, as teens so often are.
Among much younger children, however, it’s a different story. They’re more likely to be exposed to marijuana as access to the drug increases, only accidentally.
Marijuana has been lying around people’s houses for years, but toddlers aren’t likely to sneak into a bag of it in plant form, said Karen Simone, director of the Northern New England Poison Center. Sweet treats made with pot are much more appealing, though.
“If you put it in a cookie or a brownie or a candy bar, all of a sudden they don’t know the difference,” she said. “It tastes great.”
Marijuana poisonings among the youngest Maine children are uncommon, but rising.
Through 2009, the year that Maine’s medical marijuana law was expanded, cases of marijuana poisoning among children age 12 and younger were on the decline. During the two years leading up to the law change, Maine recorded just five cases, according to poison center data.
Then from 2010 to 2012, marijuana poisonings among that age group tripled to 15. During that time, Maine’s medical marijuana law was amended again to increase access, eliminating the need for patients to register with the state.
The rise in poisonings among children continued, jumping to 37 reported cases between 2013 and 2015. During that two-year span, Maine added post-traumatic stress disorder, inflammatory bowel disease and other illnesses to the list of conditions for which a physician may prescribe medical marijuana.
“Every time you make marijuana more acceptable and more available … it opens up the door to more marijuana being out where kids can reach it,” Simone said.
Colorado is seeing that firsthand. Poison center calls and emergency room visits among children accidentally exposed to pot in that state jumped significantly after the drug was legalized, according to one study.
Many of the cases in both Maine and Colorado involved children who were left alone with pot-containing treats and ate what they thought was normal food.
Pot “edibles” are already sold commercially in Maine through medical marijuana dispensaries. Passage of Question 1 would allow their sale at a broader group of retail shops.
Still, marijuana is hardly a top culprit in child poisoning cases in either state. Children get into cosmetics and other types of medications far more often than marijuana, the poison center’s data show. Maine recorded more than 2,000 cases of children age 6 and younger getting into a category of drugs including antidepressants and muscle relaxants during the last fiscal year.
The trouble with marijuana, particularly edibles, is that it’s more likely than some other drugs to send children to the hospital, Simone said.
Of course, the poison center’s figures reflect only cases they know about, where a parent or health provider called the center to report that they at least suspected a child was exposed to a drug.
As with all drugs, the danger is in the dose.
Adults using marijuana, whether medically or recreationally, build up a tolerance to the drug over time. Say a long-term user is eating brownies that contain 100 milligrams or more of tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive component or marijuana. If a child eats two or three, they’re ingesting a very high dose.
While marijuana generally doesn’t kill people, in large amounts it can make children (and adults for that matter) quite sick, Simone said. Most children who experienced poisonings were drowsy and some had rapid heart rates or were unsteady on their feet, she said. They need to be kept in a safe environment, sometimes a hospital, to be sure they don’t fall and hit their head, she said.
A couple of children had difficulty urinating, and one had dilated pupils.
In one severe case, a child required medical care for more than a day after tremors, drowsiness, slurred speech and an increased heart rate with decreased blood pressure, Simone said. Those symptoms were followed by agitation, which led doctors to sedate the child.
Though rarely, children can experience psychosis from marijuana.
There’s no antidote for marijuana poisoning, so once someone has consumed it, there’s no reversing the effects, Simone said.
Children can get the munchies, and it’s more dangerous than it sounds.
In a couple of the poisoning cases, children reportedly got hungry. Plenty of pot smokers are familiar with the urge to snack after getting high — scientists think they’ve figured out why it happens — but it’s no laughing matter when it comes to children.
If they eat of lot of food and vomit while drowsy from the effects of the marijuana, they can choke on their vomit, Simone said. That’s especially worrisome if the child has gone to bed and no one’s watching them.
Parents must be sure to keep marijuana and edibles safely stored, Simone urged.
“They have to be out of reach, out of sight, nowhere where they could possibly be confused with actual real food,” she said.
Parents don’t always fess up when their children get into marijuana.
In Colorado, emergency room staffs are too often playing a guessing game with children who are eventually diagnosed with marijuana poisoning, Simone said. Parents, fearing legal consequences, don’t always tell doctors what their child has consumed.
That makes treating those children much harder, and it can wind up subjecting them to numerous tests as doctors try to rule out other causes of their symptoms, such as brain tumors or seizures, she said.
“There’s something wrong, they’re not acting right, and it leads to a bunch of unnecessary medical care,” Simone said.
“We might have to sedate a child to put them into an MRI, and that’s not something you want to have happen to your kid,” she said.
Parents are more likely to get in trouble if their child is sick and no one can figure out why, Simone said.
“It’s important to tell us what’s going on so we can help them,” she said.
Legalization isn’t increasing pot use among older children, at least not yet.
When you look at older children, those age 13 to 19, marijuana poisonings in Maine are on almost the opposite trajectory, dropping through 2010-12 and then leveling out more recently.
Simone suspects that the growing popularity of another drug is behind that trend. Teens may be using synthetic marijuana, known as K2 or Spice, in favor of the real thing.
Teens are by no means giving up on marijuana, but use is down. Just shy of 20 percent of Maine high schoolers reported using pot at least once within the last month in 2015. That’s the lowest rate in a decade, according to Centers for Disease Control data.
Legalizing pot may not change that much. In Colorado, use of pot by teens has not increased since legalization. Another study found that the number of American teens with problems related to marijuana — such as becoming dependent on the drug or family and school troubles — dropped by 24 percent between 2002 and 2013, as more states legalized it.
Maine — which made possession of small amounts of marijuana a civil offense, rather than a criminal one, in the 1970s — has the lowest teen rates of marijuana use in New England, CDC data show.
Teens in states with legal weed may not be using it more now. But will that last? As children see adults increasingly using pot legally, more may be likely to perceive the drug as harmless. There are good reasons to believe it’s not, particularly for teenagers with developing brains.
The effects of marijuana use beginning in the teen years remain hotly debated among researchers, but more frequent use appears to correlate with poorer education outcomes and cognitive problems.
Teens in Maine are already growing less concerned about pot, according to federal data. In a survey that asks teens whether they perceive “great harm” from smoking pot once per month, Maine was among 10 states with the lowest percentage of teens answering “yes.”