4 Investigates: Are more children accidentally eating edibles?

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Recreational cannabis is booming in New Mexico. The industry is generating millions of dollars in local and state revenue, but because cannabis is more accessible there are now more opportunities for it to get in the wrong hands.

Mountaintop Extracts employees know attention to detail is crucial to their customers. Cannabis gummies are just one option among the array of THC confections now lining dispensary shelves.

“It’s a personal responsibility and a business responsibility to make sure that the community is safe, and what we do doesn’t cause harm,” said Jennifer Merryman.

Jennifer Merryman is president of Mountaintop Extracts, a cannabis manufacturer that serves retailers around the state. Born under the medical cannabis program, their products are now available to anyone old enough to walk into a dispensary.

But the appeal of those edibles has a wider reach – though it’s hard to know just how wide.

Even though the state legalized recreational cannabis, it didn’t put into place ways to track cannabis-related accidental exposures. Hospitals and emergency rooms don’t have to report them to the state. 

“The cannabis-related calls (people reporting accidental or over-use) data come from the New Mexico Poison and Drug Information Center. They are voluntary and not mandated as reportable,” said a spokesperson from the New Mexico Department of Health.

“All of our calls are voluntary so that totally confounds being able to interpret trends,” said Dr. Susan Smolinske.

Smolinske is the director of the New Mexico Poison and Drug Information Center, the state’s main source of exposure data.

Cannabis-related are on the rise: close to 250 calls last year, nearly half from hospitals.

Smolinske said overall total exposure and percent in children are increasing:

  • 2023: 47 exposures (72% children)
  • 2022: 247 exposures (66.8% children)
  • 2021: 189 exposures (57% children)
  • 2020: 171 exposures (61% in children)

According to Smolinske, the percent of edibles consumed by children under five years old went down while exposures to children over six years old went up 100%.

“We haven’t seen a fatality from cannabis, but there has been from gummies in other states with young children,” said Smolinske. “So, it’s definitely safer, if you get a dose in a young child, to be in the hospital.”

The biggest increase is in elementary school-aged children with edibles.

“These older kids 5 to 10 who are getting into the edibles, I think we’re seeing more serious than in the past with them because they are eating more. they’re eating a whole bar,” Smolinske said.

Edible products are almost always packaged with more than one serving.

“For instance, in a gummy bag if it’s 100 mg gummy bag you would have 10 separate units of 10 mg,” said Merryman.

Merryman said state standards around packaging are stringent, requiring labeled THC warnings and child-proof baggies or containers.

“The thinking is that if a child cannot get into that package, they’re not going to accidentally ingest cannabis,” said Merryman.

But once the package is open it’s a different story. People can store them however they’d like. 

‘That’s why we recommend leaving the original label on it because should someone in the home accidentally, or unintentionally ingest it you would need that label to know how many milligrams it had in it,” said Shanon Jaramillo, CEO of SeedCrest Inc. “If they ate half the chocolate bar, and it was 100 milligrams, you would know they ate 50 milligrams.”

 SeedCrest is working with Mountaintop Extracts on a new cannabis safety education campaign.

“It’s a bit of a learning curve for these families and I think where it starts is that stigma, whether or not to talk to your children about it,” said Jaramillo. “Whether or not opening the conversation then leads your children to doing it, right?”

Jaramillo and Merryman are working together on a pre-legalization promise that they said so far has fallen short.  It’s called “Check your Treat.”

It’s an interactive way to get a serious message through to children and really anyone who consumes – even those who don’t.

Jaramillo said they’re working on creating tools and resources to educate families and the growing New Mexico cannabis workforce. Now they need some buy in from dispensaries, nonprofits, even schools and hopefully the state.

“Cannabis is here. It’s not going anywhere,” said Jaramillo. “It’s readily accessible and your kid or your teen could be coming into contact with it today, and you haven’t had that conversation yet.”

Without accurate data it’s unclear what the impact really is. We know THC-products are showing up in schools, but the Public Education Department doesn’t track that. 

“The PED does not review cannabis policies for any of the schools, so schools do not send that information to the PED,” said a spokesperson with the Public Education Department.

The Department of Health does have a group that will research and public a safety report by December 2024.

There’s also an interactive app called “webPOISONCONTROL” where you can enter a person’s age and what they consumed, and it will offer some advice on if you should call the poison center.

Officials with the Regulation and Licensing Department said the Cannabis Control Division will launch an educational campaign soon.