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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Fourteen kids were treated at one Colorado emergency room for accidentally ingesting marijuana after the drug became legal for medical use there in late 2009, according to a new study.
In comparison, no children seen for a possible accidental poisoning had pot in their system in the four years before the change in laws, researchers looking back at ER records found.
"These products are now commercially available and have high amounts of THC in them," said Dr. George Wang, who led the new study at Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center in Denver.
Medical marijuana is now legal in 18 states and Washington, D.C. Colorado dispensaries sell baked goods, candies and soft drinks made with pot for people with cancer, HIV and severe pain, for example.
Last year, Colorado and Washington State voted to make small amounts of the drug legal for recreational use, as well.
After seeing a couple of young children who got very sick from marijuana, Wang's team looked back at almost 1,400 ER records belonging to kids being treated for unintentional ingestions at Children's Hospital Colorado in 2005 through 2011.
Before October 2009, none of the 790 kids suspected of accidental poisoning tested positive for marijuana in their urine.
After the law changed, 14 out of 588 were found to have eaten or otherwise ingested the drug. Those kids were between 8 months and 12 years old, Wang and his colleagues reported in JAMA Pediatrics.
Eight of those children were admitted to the hospital, including two to the intensive care unit. Most showed up with lack of energy, but one also had low oxygen levels and another trouble breathing.
"The biggest thing we are concerned about is the level of sedation in these kids," Wang told Reuters Health.
"The things that we get scared of are, they get enough that they're so sleepy that it affects how they breathe, or they fall and hit their head."
"The impact on children is different than it is in adults," said Dr. William Hurley, from the University of Washington School of Medicine and the Washington Poison Center in Seattle.
"Kids get significant depression of their central nervous system - their brain and their breathing centers - and they can end up having us breathe for them," Hurley, who wrote an editorial accompanying the new study, told Reuters Health.
He and his colleagues have also seen a slight increase in kids' marijuana exposures since medical marijuana became legal in Washington.
Hurley said he worries about more ingestions in the future, because Washington has allowed cookies and brownies baked with pot as part of legalizing recreational marijuana.
"We know when we put those products into the environment, we're going to see kids exposed to them," he said.
Dr. Shan Yin, medical director of the Cincinnati Drug and Poison Information Center at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, said the new study can't prove legalizing medical marijuana led more kids to get into the drug.
But, he told Reuters Health, "It's not surprising to me either that with the advent of medical marijuana in Colorado, it would be more freely available in households and that kids could have more access to it."
Yin used to work with some of the authors, but wasn't involved in the new study.
Wang has been trying to get the latest bill on recreational marijuana use in Colorado to include a requirement of child-resistant packaging. In the meantime, he said people who use the drug for medical or recreational reasons should keep it out of reach of children.
"I think everyone can agree that we don't want our kids getting into it," he said.
SOURCE: bit.ly/115I1Gu JAMA Pediatrics, online May 27, 2013.