12 Mar Marijuana Decriminalization Linked to Rise in Child Drug Exposure
Decriminalization is the term used to describe the process of removing some or all of the legal penalties for an action or behavior. In the last 18 years, 20 U.S. states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized the use of the plant-based drug marijuana to one degree or another. In a study published in March 2014 in the American College of Emergency Physician’s Annals of Emergency Medicine, a team of American researchers assessed the connection between marijuana decriminalization and toxic childhood exposure to the drug.
Federal law in the U.S. heavily prohibits the sale and use of marijuana. However, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have the power to create drug laws within their jurisdictions that may or may not conform to the federal standard. Since 1996, Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and the District of Columbia have established laws that allow access to marijuana when the drug is prescribed as a medical treatment for a diagnosable ailment. Broadly speaking, marijuana used in this context is known as medical marijuana. In addition, two states—Colorado and Washington—have passed laws allowing anyone over the age of 21 to legally use and possess relatively small amounts of marijuana for recreational purposes.
Decriminalization and Toxic Exposure
In the study published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, researchers from the Rocky Mountain Poison Control and Drug Center, the University of Colorado and Denver Health looked at the connection between marijuana decriminalization and the rate of accidental child exposure to marijuana in any given state. They performed their work with information gathered from the American Association of Poison Control Centers’ National Poison Data System, which records reported episodes of all sorts of poisonings throughout the U.S., between the beginning of 2005 and the end of 2011. The researchers used this information to compare the rate of accidental childhood marijuana poisonings in states that have decriminalized marijuana use to the rate of such poisonings in states that still maintain strict prohibitions against marijuana use.
All told, 985 American children aged 9 or younger were recorded as accidental victims of marijuana poisoning between 2005 and 2011. Roughly half of these poisonings (496) occurred in states where marijuana use is illegal under any circumstances. Another 396 poisonings occurred in states where marijuana use had been decriminalized. In addition, 93 poisonings occurred in states transitioning from a strict prohibition on marijuana use to some sort of decriminalization. Typically, accidental marijuana poisonings occurred among very young children; boys were slightly more likely to experience a toxic exposure than girls. While poisoning produced a range of harmful outcomes, nervous system damage occurred more often than another single symptom.
Between 2005 and 2011, reports of child exposure to marijuana poisoning did not increase in the states where marijuana use remained illegal. However, in the states that decriminalized marijuana use, reports of child poisoning went up by slightly more than 30 percent in the same timeframe. In the states that were transitioning from prohibition to decriminalization, reports of child exposure to marijuana poisoning went up by 11.5 percent.
Significance and Considerations
Even after accounting for the rise in poisonings in states that decriminalized marijuana use or transitioned toward decriminalization, toxic exposure to the drug in childhood is still quite uncommon, the authors of the study published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine note. In most cases, the symptoms of poisoning are successfully resolved within a day. However, generally speaking, young children in states with looser marijuana laws develop more serious poisoning symptoms that children in states that prohibit the drug’s use. In addition, more of the poisoned children in states with looser marijuana laws end up with a need for some sort of rapid medical care. There were no reported cases of fatal exposure to marijuana among young children between 2005 and 2011.
The authors of the study largely link the rise in poisonings in states with laxer marijuana laws to the popularity of edible medical marijuana products such as chocolates, cookies and candy. These products, which in some cases contain relatively large doses of the drug, naturally appeal to young children who have no way of distinguishing them from chocolates, cookies or candies that don’t contain marijuana or the drug’s active ingredient, THC.
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