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By Mark Rudi

High Hopes

UNM Expert Offers Words of Caution for Newly Legalized Recreational Cannabis Use

The recreational use of cannabis became legal in New Mexico starting on Friday, April 1.

But as other states and countries that have legalized cannabis have learned, there are some things to consider – especially if you are using these products for the first time, or if you have young children in your household.

“My big concern with cannabis products, especially with legalization, is children,” said Caitlin Bonney, MD, assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at The University of New Mexico and assistant medical director of the New Mexico Poison and Drug Information Center. “What we see in states that have legalized cannabis and in Canada, is that after legalization, there is a big increase in children getting ahold of edible product.”

After Colorado legalized recreational cannabis in January 2014, the Poison Center saw an increase in the number of calls for cannabis exposure in children 13 and under. 

New Mexico will have laws regulating the packaging of cannabis edibles, but even so, these products often look like and taste like candy or cookies, Bonney said. If a product is left out or dropped on the floor and a child eats it, they would ingest a high dose of tetrahydrocannabinol, better known known as THC.

What we see in states that have legalized cannabis and in Canada, is that after legalization, there is a big increase in children getting ahold of edible product
Caitlin Bonney, MD

“Where that might just be unpleasant for an adult, it can actually be dangerous or life-threatening for a child – especially a preschool-age kid, age 5 or under,” Bonney said. “We have seen in places like Canada after legalization there is a higher number of younger kids getting exposed and getting admitted to the intensive care units and having issues like trouble breathing and even seizures.”

In the most dangerous situations, a high dose of THC can slow down a child’s breathing to the point where they can get very sick, Bonney said. In less severe cases, a child might just become sleepy.

“At the Poison Center, we are certainly able to help a parent determine when a child needs to go to the Emergency Department, versus when we can watch them at home for those effects,” Bonney said. “We always encourage parents to call the Poison Center if they think or know their child has gotten ahold of a cannabis product.”

Bonney advises parents with young children to not have these products in the household and if they do, to treat them as something that is dangerous to children, to be kept locked up high and out of reach.

Emergency departments in states that have legalized cannabis have also seen an increase in cannabis-related visits in adults. Usually these are for high-potency products like edibles, vape oils, e-cigarette vape pens and products that have plant material in them with much higher potency THC than even two decades ago.

Bonney said back in the 1990s, most of the cannabis was around 5 percent THC, compared to today, where it’s around 25 percent.

“People need to be cautious of how much THC they are getting, whether it’s by smoking, vaping or taking an edible, Bonney said. “And knowing they might get unexpected effects if they get a very large dose of these.”

It’s also important to remember that when smoking a cannabis product, the effects happen right away. But when eating a cannabis product, the effects sometimes take up to three hours to be felt. Because of that, people sometimes assume the edible’s effects are not working and keep eating these products. 

And if trying these products – whether it’s smoking or an edible – for the first time once they become legal, Bonney recommends starting with a very low dose and going very slowly.

“People often don’t anticipate what the effect is going to be,” Bonney said. “We see people who use a large amount right off the bat, are very concerned by the effect this has and then end up in the Emergency Department.”

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