With legal marijuana, children's hospital braces for accidental poisonings

Doctors at the IWK in Halifax expect the number of children who accidentally eat cannabis will rise, now that it’s legal to bake pot brownies and cookies at home.

The IWK in Halifax is part of a national surveillance team tracking cannabis overdoses among children

Robyn Hadley says she always keeps her edibles hidden in the top cupboard, out of her son's reach. (Eric Wooliscroft/CBC)

As Robyn Hadley whips up a batch of chocolate-oat cookies infused with pot in her Dartmouth, N.S., kitchen, her two-year-old son plays with a marijuana-leaf-shaped cookie cutter in his high chair.

She's not shy or apologetic about using cannabis to treat her scoliosis, anxiety and depression. Framed pictures of marijuana leaves line her countertop. But even with that open environment, Hadley says she's careful to always keep her stash of edibles in the top cupboard, away from her little one's grasp.

"There's mommy and daddy's cookies, and then there's his treats," she says. "It's up, it's out of reach and it stays away from him. It gets kept with my other medicine."

While Hadley takes special care in her house, some doctors worry recreational marijuana legalization is increasing the risk of accidental poisonings among kids, especially given the sale of cannabis edibles will also become legal in the next year.

Dr. Katrina Hurley, medical director at the emergency department of the IWK children's hospital in Halifax, expects more children will mistakenly eat baked goods and other spiked candy meant for adults.

"When it's a tasty treat, they're more likely to eat a larger quantity, you know, as opposed to eating a joint," she said. "If it's more universally available, and people don't have fear of criminal consequences, then I expect that with it being more available in homes that we will see more ingestions."

Emergency room doctors at the IWK in Halifax say cannabis edibles such as cookies, brownies and candies are more enticing for children than alcohol or other drugs. They recommend locking up all cannabis to ensure kids can't mistakenly get into a hidden stash. (Eric Wooliscroft/CBC)

Over the last two years, the IWK Poison Centre has received about one report every month of a child under age 12 who has accidentally eaten cannabis. In the previous decade, cases were rare.

Clinical leader Laurie Mosher says tracking will continue at the poison centre with a refined focus on product details and circumstances. 

"We have special codes for edibles, liquids, age group coding and we will be part of a national surveillance for poison information," Mosher says.

Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada will also be tracking cannabis exposure among children more closely in the coming months.

Hurley says she can't help but feel nervous, and she hopes getting the word out will help prevent children from eating edibles. Although common belief is that marijuana can't kill a person, she begs to differ. 

"I would say, actually, cannabis possibly could kill a small child such as a toddler. So if they ingested a sufficient amount, it could make them sleepy and drowsy enough that it might make it difficult for them to breathe properly," Hurley says.

She adds that any underlying medical conditions such as a heart or lung issue could also magnify a child's reaction. The IWK Poison Centre says some children have ended up in the intensive care unit after eating cannabis. 

Dr. Katrina Hurley, medical director at the IWK emergency department in Halifax, says children with underlying health conditions could become critically ill if they consume cannabis. (Eric Wooliscroft/CBC)

Hadley understands the concerns for those with underlying conditions, but says the medical community shouldn't overreact.

"I know our ERs are probably going to see an influx of a lot of people because they're not used to the substance, but I think it will lessen over time as more education comes out and they see that this is not a fatal plant," she says.

"It's not going to actually cause issues that will put your life in danger."

The IWK expects to see more cases of children accidentally consuming edibles, such as pot cookies, now that Canadians can legally make cannabis-infused treats at home. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Benjamin Smith, a Pugwash, N.S., father of two children who is a casual user of marijuana, says keeping it hidden from his kids is "common sense."

"I understand the need to educate, but you hope that it just doesn't come from a fear-mongering situation," he says. 

"You would hope that most parents have the fortitude to have open and transparent conversations about the products that they consume and their children could consume."

But it's still necessary to state the obvious, according to Hurley. She says her first priority is the medical needs of a child who has consumed cannabis. She doesn't enjoy the next step following an ER visit.

"My second priority would be looking at future safety and circumstances around this potential ingestion. And if I had concerns about neglect or inadequate supervision and storage of potentially toxic substances, then I may have to call Child Protection to report that," she says.

At the IWK Poison Centre, Mosher says the common expression is "there is no such thing as child proof."

"If you have a cannabis edible, you're going to have to find a locked box or a locked bag and you're going to have to keep it out of sight from them. Because when you look at a candy or a brownie or a chocolate, they all look the same whether there's cannabis in them or not."

About the Author

Angela MacIvor

Reporter

Angela MacIvor is CBC Nova Scotia's investigative reporter. She has been with CBC since 2006 as a reporter and producer in all three Maritime provinces. All news tips welcome. Send an email to cbcnsinvestigates@cbc.ca