Maine’s recreational marijuana market will turn a year old later this week, and it has been a big year for the new industry. Sales grew every month through the end of summer. By August, they had topped $10 million — and that’s on top of an already robust medical marijuana market.
But there have been other, more troubling trends since the personal use of marijuana was first opened to Maine adults by referendum in the fall of 2016. There have been more reports of children getting their hands on the substance — intentionally or not — despite state regulations meant to prevent that from happening.
It’s leading to scary outcomes in some cases, and one member of the Legislature’s marijuana advisory committee said they should prompt more safeguards.
For the past two years, emergency rooms across Maine have reported a somewhat elevated number of patients younger than 18 whose clinical records mentioned marijuana, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. They have averaged about 25 per month since the start of 2020, compared with 20 per month in the previous three years.
And the number of poison control calls for Maine kids who consumed marijuana has mostly been climbing for the last five years.
In 2016, the Northern New England Poison Center received just two calls for Maine kids younger than 6 who had been exposed to marijuana. It then received 28 in 2019, 23 in 2020 and 29 through August of this year — with about 35 percent of those calls including moderate or serious health effects.
There was a smaller uptick for kids 6-12 years old during those same years.
Often, the kids had swallowed gummies, chocolates, brownies or other edibles infused with weed, perhaps not realizing they contained the psychoactive chemical THC and instead thinking they were just regular sweets. Gummies were the most common of the products in 2020.
“What we’re seeing with children, and actually with adults too sometimes, is that a serving of THC or cannabis gummies is usually one piece, but if somebody doesn’t realize that they’re consuming THC, they’ll eat several of them, and that’s where folks are running into trouble,” said Victoria Frankl, an educator with the Northern New England Poison Center, which covers Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.
There are no reports of children or adults dying from the use of marijuana alone, but overconsumption can still lead to dangerous symptoms. They include drowsiness, dizziness and anxiety, as well as more serious ones such as breathing trouble, hallucinations or seizures. In the most severe cases, someone might require intensive care.
Frankl said that marijuana-related calls to the poison center used to feel like “one-offs,” but are now “a little bit more commonplace.” That’s similar to trends in other states that have opened up their marijuana laws and reported increased poison control calls for kids exposed to edibles, according to the Washington Post.
It’s not clear how much of Maine’s increase over the last few years is specifically related to the legalization and now sale of recreational marijuana by adults.
In the market’s first year, infused products such as gummies and drinks made up the smallest portion of sales. In August, they brought in $2 million in revenue, compared with $2.3 million from concentrates and $6 million from smokeable material such as flowers and joints, according to preliminary data from the Maine Office of Marijuana Policy.
Other factors could be playing a role. Weed has been legal since 2017 for Maine adults to grow, possess and consume in limited quantities. The medical marijuana market has also been growing over the past few years. And it’s still possible that some black market products are having an effect.
David Heidrich, a spokesperson for the Office of Marijuana Policy, did not directly answer whether the office would propose any changes in light of the increased poison control calls. But he said that the office is committed to safely regulating the adult-use market and keeping products away from anyone younger than 21, and that it collects data from various sources to help guide its policies.
He points to several rules that are meant to deter youth exposures, such as requirements for products to be clearly labeled as containing THC, come in child-resistant packaging and not be marketed in a way that would appeal to minors. Companies also can’t call their products “candy” or shape them like humans, animals or fruit.
State agencies are mounting educational campaigns to encourage safer use and storage of marijuana, some of which will be funded with tax revenue from the adult use market, according to Heidrich.
Public health advocates hope the state will take further action to prevent powerful marijuana products from reaching kids.
Scott Gagnon, the associate executive director of AdCare Maine, a statewide substance use prevention group, is concerned that the growing availability of the substance increases the risk that kids could accidentally or deliberately use it when their brains are still developing.
Gagnon, who also sits on the Legislature’s marijuana advisory committee, points to results from Maine’s biannual integrated youth health survey in 2019, in which 22 percent of high school kids responded that they had used marijuana at least once in the last 30 days, after that number dipped to around 19.5 percent in both 2015 and 2017. He now is eager to see the 2021 results when they are available, which is not expected until next year.
“We’ve seen this before with commercial tobacco, commercial alcohol, and we’ve seen troubling trends in the vaping space, as well, where we have to be concerned about how the market, how the commercialization, how availability is influencing these data pieces and then what are the consequential outcomes for that,” Gagnon said.
Gagnon hopes the state will consider some additional safeguards, such as a cap on the potency of the marijuana products that can be legally sold, similar to the one Vermont has implemented, and a cap on how much concentrate can be purchased in a single day, which Colorado recently approved.
Maine does limit how much recreational concentrate one adult can purchase in a single transaction to 5 grams, but Gagnon said he’d like a daily limit that can be tracked across dispensaries.”
He also thinks tax revenues from the legal market should help support the public health coalitions working to prevent youth marijuana use at a regional level of Maine.
Frankl encouraged everyone with marijuana in their home to keep it locked in a secure place where kids can’t reach it, and to call the poison center for any questions they might have, even if it’s not an emergency.
“We’re a total judgment-free zone,” she said.
The Northern New England Poison Center can be reached at 1-800-222-1222.
This piece has been updated to clarify that Maine limits how much marijuana concentrate one adult can buy in a transaction, but not over the course of a day.”
This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.