Over the past few years, marijuana use has been landing more young people in the hospital, according to a new study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Published on Thursday in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the report analyzed nearly 540,000 cases nationwide where people under 25 years old wound up in a hospital due to complications from cannabis use. From 2019 to 2022, the researchers found that cannabis-related emergency department visits increased overall among kids, teens, and young adults.
Over the study period, the researchers also noted large increases in cannabis-related ED visits among kids less than ten years old.
Nearly 1 in 5 Americans over 12 years old used cannabis in 2021, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration. Studies show that marijuana users across the board are more likely to visit an emergency department or be hospitalized. For teens or young adults with a mood disorder, marijuana use puts them at an increased risk of self-harm, suicide attempts and death.
Using data from the National Syndromic Surveillance Program, the report looked at instances in the years before and during the Covid-19 pandemic where kids and young adults landed in emergency departments due to marijuana use. Average weekly visits for young people were higher across the board between 2020 and 2022 compared to pre-pandemic levels in 2019, peaking in the second half of the 2020-2021 school year. Those levels remained high throughout 2022.
While the report didn’t look specifically at the reasons for the increase in cannabis-related youth ED visits, it proposes a variety of possible causes, including using cannabis as a “coping mechanism for pandemic-related stressors” and increased availability of highly concentrated THC products.
“The pandemic took an overwhelming toll on the mental health of youth,” Doug Roehler, an epidemiologist at the CDC’s Injury Center, told CNN by email. “We know for some, substance use can be a coping mechanism to deal with stressful situations, especially among those already with a substance use disorder.”
The rise in cannabis-related emergency department visits, however, does not necessarily mean that kids are consuming more marijuana. According to the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future Survey, marijuana use among 8th to 12th graders from 2019-2022 either decreased or remained approximately level.
From Roehler’s perspective, this could mean that young people are using more concentrated, risky cannabis products or that more youth reported cannabis use during ED visits.
“When youth do consume cannabis, they were getting more intoxicated,” Roehler added.
While more than 90% of those cannabis-related hospital trips occurred in the oldest age bracket, for people ages 15 to 24 years old, noticeable rises occurred for younger kids, as well.
Before the pandemic, cases where children under 10 visited emergency departments due to cannabis consumption occurred roughly 18 to 23 times a week, on average. During the pandemic, that figure rose as high as 71.5 weekly cannabis-related ED visits.
According to the report, that uptick corresponds with an increase in edible marijuana consumption and toxicity among young children.
In June 2022, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released an alert warning about children accidentally ingesting products containing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in cannabis.
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According to the alert, many edible THC products mimic popular food brands, such as Cocoa Pebbles, Skittles, and Starburst, leading to cases of young children mistaking the edibles for snacks and experiencing symptoms like hallucinations, increased heart rate, and vomiting.
“While the FDA is working to eliminate packaging that mimics common candies and snacks, these products continue to be mistaken by youth,” Roehler said.
The study recommends that local communities implement evidence-based substance-use prevention programs tailored to the needs of youth during the pandemic. The researchers also advise adults use who cannabis to safely and securely store products out of reach of children.