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SickKids research finds rates of accidental cannabis ingestion and severe intoxication in young children rose after legalization
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SickKids research finds rates of accidental cannabis ingestion and severe intoxication in young children rose after legalization


Increases in unintentional ingestions and intensive care admissions for severe cannabis poisoning in children were primarily due to exposure to recently approved cannabis edibles.

According to new research conducted by The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids), significantly higher rates of intensive care admission and more severe presentations to the SickKids Emergency Department (ED) for unintentional cannabis poisonings were observed following cannabis legalization in Canada. The researchers found a four-fold increase in unintentional poisonings in children under the age of 12 and a three-fold increase in intensive care admissions for severe cannabis poisoning in the first two years following cannabis legalization. However, the overall number of visits per month for cannabis intoxications to the SickKids ED remained consistent when comparing the pre- and post-legalization periods. The findings were published in Clinical Toxicology on June 17, 2021.

Dr. Yaron Finkelstein.

Cannabis intoxication can result in hospitalization, ICU admission of young children

Led by Dr. Yaron Finkelstein, Staff Physician, Paediatric Emergency Medicine and Clinical Pharmacology and Toxicology at SickKids, the study compared cannabis-related ED visits, hospitalizations and intensive care unit (ICU) admissions at SickKids during pre- and post-legalization periods to analyze the unintentional impacts of the legislation.

“While uncommon in adults, cannabis intoxication can have significant negative impacts on young children including behavioural changes, seizures, respiratory depression, problems with coordination and balance, and even coma. As different formulations of cannabis continue to be legalized, it is important for everyone to be aware of the potential harms to children and ensure cannabis products are safely stored within the home,” notes Finkelstein, Senior Scientist, Child Health Evaluative Sciences at SickKids.

Unintentional ingestion of cannabis edibles implicated in increased rates of severe intoxication

The study also determined that the increases in severe intoxications from cannabis were primarily due to exposure of young children to cannabis edibles, which have become increasingly accessible and popular. Edible cannabis products are both highly concentrated and visually attractive to young children – leading to ingestion as the most consequential route of paediatric exposures. Inconsistencies and difficulties in determining the exact formulation and potency of the edible ingested can also make it challenging for health-care providers to anticipate the severity and length of the effects of cannabis exposure.

The study team, including researchers and trainees from across SickKids, hope that by raising awareness of the potential dangers of unintentional cannabis poisonings, it will encourage the public to be even more careful when storing cannabis products within the home, particularly edibles that can often be mistaken by children for regular food and candy.

Message on the left reads "Remember: keep all cannabis products in a locked container away from other food and drinks, and out of children's reach." Right side shows an image of a kitchen with a locked box on top of the refrigerator.

“As the COVID-19 pandemic has presented more opportunities for families to be at home, it’s even more important to ensure that substances, such as cannabis, are stored out of the reach of young children. There are simple actions everyone can take to help prevent unintentional poisonings and keep children safe, including keeping cannabis products in a locked container, away from other food and drinks,” adds Finkelstein, who is also a Professor, Departments of Paediatrics and Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Toronto.

Research funding was provided by SickKids Foundation and its donor, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO).

The Ontario Poison Centre is available to help you and your family and to answer questions about poisons 24 hours a day, every day of the year. Learn more about the risks of cannabis and how to prevent uninentional poisoning.

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