A new study looking at calls to poison control centers in the U.S. over two decades adds to growing evidence that more adolescents and teenagers are turning to cannabis than alcohol. Researchers found a gradual decrease in alcohol-related calls since 2010, but a steady increase in cannabis-related calls from 2010 to 2017. Cases since 2017 have increased.
There was a particular increase in cases of abuse of edibles, says Adrienne Hughes, an emergency medicine physician at Oregon Health and Science University who led the study. Unlike smoking weed, which gives an immediate high, edibles take longer to kick in and have more unpredictable highs, making it easier to overuse.
The study has some limitations. Calls to the poison control center are usually from either a parent or a health care provider, meaning the actual number of cases for all substances is likely higher. And all reported cases are intentional use — this data doesn’t reflect, for example, an incoming call because a child accidentally ate an edible product thinking it was candy.
The work coincides with other recent studies showing that teenagers are shifting their interest from alcohol to cannabis and, in particular, to edibles. A 2018 study that looked at attitudes and use around the drug based on findings from the California Healthy Kids Study. Researchers focused on a racially and ethnically diverse middle school in Northern California and found that one-third of the children had used marijuana, and 83% of those children had tried edibles. This study found greater use of edibles among girls, who were also more likely to view edibles as more risky than smoking marijuana.
And a recent study led by Columbia University epidemiologist Catherine Keyes found that between 2000 and 2020, cannabis-only use among high school seniors doubled from 2011 to 2019—and like the California study, use increases faster among girls.
This has coincided with a significant decline over the past two decades in adolescent and teenage alcohol consumption. The Keyes study found that teenagers were also less likely to use alcohol and cannabis together, although the decline was more subtle.
Because the cannabis market is so fragmented and doesn’t receive the same kind of regulatory scrutiny as tobacco or alcohol products, marijuana is sold in forms that appeal to children, such as gum, caramel, chocolates and baked goods. The only silver lining is that the market has yet to see a major player come out with a product that has taken off—in other words, the Juul equivalent has yet to enter the scene.
But without regulation of these products, it’s only a matter of time, says Sharon Levy, director of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Adolescent Substance Abuse Program. “If you have one of these really big corporations make something that can be pushed across the country,” there could be a tidal wave of young consumers.
Cannabis is often (rightly) seen as the least harmful choice on the recreational drug menu. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of reasons to want to delay using the potty for kids. Although the evidence for its effect on the developing brain is still a matter of debate, studies show that adolescent marijuana use has a negative impact on both academic achievement and socioeconomic status at a young age. Some studies show that children are much more vulnerable to addiction to cannabis than adults, a problem that seems to be exacerbated by the extreme potency of some products.
To curb adolescent cannabis use, we need to learn some lessons from reducing teenage alcohol use. And researchers have some strong theories. Keyes suspects that much of this is due to massive public policy and public health efforts to prevent underage drinking, whether that’s equalizing minimum ages, educating kids and their parents, or efforts to reduce drinking on college campuses. campuses. “My reading is that when you make it a priority, you can really push the needle in areas where you’re really concerned about public health,” Keyes says.
This same approach seems to have worked for over-the-counter cough medicine abuse. Hughes’ study showed a sharp drop in calls to the poison control center linked to the cough syrup ingredient dextromethorphan. Over the past decade, products with this ingredient have become much more difficult for children to purchase, as individual states have passed laws over the past decade prohibiting their sale to anyone under 18 without a prescription, and there has been a concerted public health effort to reduce use. from teenagers.
Similar efforts are now needed for cannabis, where the legal and commercial environment is changing rapidly. The piecemeal approach to legalization has left so many resource gaps—ones that children and teenagers fall into.
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Lisa Jarvis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the biotech, healthcare and pharmaceutical industries. She was previously executive editor of Chemical & Engineering News.
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