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Would recreational marijuana in Florida lead to increased exposure among children?

Research shows links between legalization, more children being exposed to THC
Posted at 3:49 PM, May 03, 2024
and last updated 2024-05-07 12:19:21-04

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Since the Florida Supreme Court cleared the way in April for voters to decide on recreational marijuana, WPTV has been examining what life would look like if the ballot measure passes in November.

Research in states that allow recreational marijuana shows clear links between legalization and more children being exposed to the substance.

WPTV spoke with doctors, poison control and even a company that markets marijuana-derived products. They all said it's up to regulators, sellers and parents to protect kids from what could be a dangerous substance for them.

Dr. Michael Thomas is a pediatric gastroenterologist on staff at Palm Beach Children's Hospital. He's seen firsthand the impacts of THC — the psychoactive compound in marijuana — on children and teenagers.

"Difficulty walking, vomiting, abdominal pain, difficulty breathing," he said.

But if Florida voters approve a measure to legalize recreational marijuana for adults, Thomas worries about more cases of accidental use among children.

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"Usually it's in the form, right, of edibles," Thomas said. "And that's where we see our pediatric population, it becoming a public health issue."

Mike McCormick is the spokesman for the Florida Poison Information Center in Jacksonville.

"These look like three Rice Krispie bars," McCormick told me during a Zoom conversation, displaying three similar treats. "Can you tell me which one does not have THC in it?"

"Absolutely not," I answered.

Mike McCormick shows Jamie Ostroff THC-edible treats that look like Rice Krispies bars
Mike McCormick, spokesman for the Florida Poison Information Center in Jacksonville, shows WPTV's Jamie Ostroff some THC-edible treats that look like Rice Krispies bars during a Zoom conversation.

"No," McCormick said. "And if you were a 6-year-old, would you be able to tell the difference? And the answer is no. ... Do you know how many gummies a child will take when they find a jar of gummies? And, anecdotally, the answer is all of them."

He tells me Florida poison control centers have already seen two spikes in the number of calls about children being exposed to THC.

"One is with medical marijuana, and we watched THC poisonings rise after medical marijuana came into the state," McCormick said. "And two are the hemp-based THC products. Some call those 'marijuana light' or 'diet weed.'"

Calls for THC Edibles Kids and Teens Graphic

Research backs that up.

In study after study, academic researchers dove into data on hospital visits and calls to poison control hotlines. All of them came to similar conclusions — a link between the legalization of recreational marijuana and the ingestion of marijuana by younger children.

The issue isn't unique to marijuana, McCormick said.

"Anytime that we see an increase in availability of a product, we tend to see a correlation to an increase in poisonings from the product," he said.

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McCormick and Thomas hope the risk can be managed.

Edible products are becoming a larger portion of marijuana exposures in Florida, rising almost every year since Florida Poison Control started tracking edibles in 2018.

"What type of regulations would you like to see if recreational cannabis becomes legal in Florida?" I asked Thomas.

Dr. Michael Thomas speaks with WPTV's Jamie Ostroff about concerns of children being poisoned by THC edibles
Dr. Michael Thomas, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Palm Beach Children's Hospital, shares his concerns with WPTV's Jamie Ostroff about the increased likelihood of children being poisoned by THC edibles if recreational marijuana were to become legalized in Florida.

"A lot of it relates to prevention," Thomas said. "So that goes into packaging, right? Not making it attractive towards kids."

Jonathan Black is the CEO of Cheech & Chong's cannabis company. He said the company takes "the safety of children very, very seriously."

"We both do low, low THC hemp-derived products, and we do THC-regulated products," he said.

Black compares the company's hemp-derived products — sold legally in all states except Idaho — to alcohol. He said the company's products are not for anyone under 21.

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Cheech Marin, left, and Tommy Chong arrive for the world premiere of "Cheech & Chong's Last Movie" at the Paramount Theatre during the South by Southwest Film Festival on Tuesday, March 12, 2024, in Austin, Texas.

"We're not focused on trying to entice children by any stretch," Black said. "I don't feel like any of our products do that."

As companies like Black's look to expand business in states like Florida, he said following the individual laws of each state needs to be front and center.

"We have in-house counsel. We have out-house counsel. We're trying to do everything we can," Black said. "Because what we don't want to do is we don't want to set the industry back."

But when it comes to Florida's laws, if voters approve recreational marijuana, plenty of questions remain.

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"What sort of packaging restrictions?" McCormick asked. "Will they be child-resistant? Will they be required to sell, you know, bags with locks on them so that the materials can be kept inside them? What are the advertising restrictions?"

Currently, Florida Department of Health rules require child-resistant packaging, warning labels and other product information on marijuana products.

Lawmakers this year proposed legislation that would have prohibited marijuana products from being "attractive to children."

The bills died in committees in both the House and Senate.

"Amendment 3 underscores the crucial role of legislative oversight in regulating the cannabis industry to shield minors from THC exposure," said Morgan Hill, a spokeswoman for Smart & Safe Florida, a group supporting November's ballot initiative. "Smart & Safe Florida prioritizes responsible access to cannabis for adults while advocating for robust regulations that span cultivation to consumption, including restrictions on public smoking and product presentation to dissuade accidental adolescent consumption. Such safeguards align with customary practices for policy implementation across industries in our state."