A skyrocketing number of children in the tri-state are inadvertently ingesting marijuana edibles, and legislators say there's a void in New York's emerging pot regulations that isn't helping the situation.
The scary trend began before New York State legalized recreational marijuana back in March, going from six children in the NYC metropolitan area poisoned by edibles in 2018, to 32 in 2019 and 127 in 2020, according to regional poison control officials.
"Sometimes that's in the form of candies and gummies, cookies and brownies. There are lots of forms that are out there," said Dr. Ethan Wiener, director of pediatric emergency medicine at Hassenfeld Children's Hospital at NYU Langone.
Two-thirds of those children are under the age of 5 — and the numbers are on track to be just as high this year.
The numbers are also spiking upstate, and in New Jersey where their poison center reports the number of children 5 and under ingesting edibles more than doubled each year since 2018.
Nationally, the numbers are on the rise too. According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, its members dealt with 598 in-home exposures in children under age 12 in 2018. By 2020, that had skyrocketed to 2,473.
The number of pediatric THC exposures counted as "potentially toxic" is up 20-fold over the last five years, the association said.
The I-Team has learned dozens of local children have ended up in area hospitals.
The numbers are alarming — but not surprising to the pediatricians.
NYU Langone's Wiener said the hospital is treating toddlers for toxic levels of THC (the active ingredient in marijuana) at least a couple of times a month.
While most gummies in legalized stores have a "beginner" adult dose of about 5-10 mg of THC, Wiener said they've treated kids who ingested up to 200 milligrams. One child ended up having seizures from the magnitude of the overdose.
The fallout is also being seen at Cohen Children's Hospital on Long Island, where doctors have started routinely testing for THC when trying to diagnose any child who comes in lethargic or unresponsive.
"The most serious cases tend to be when a child ends up stopping breathing or slows breathing enough where it's life-threatening and they end up having to be put on breathing machines until the effects of the medication wear off," said Dr. James Schneider, a critical care physician who runs the pediatric ICU at Cohen.
In New York, retail sales for recreational use aren't happening yet, but when that starts, pediatricians fear the growing problem will get even worse.
"It was the jump from year to year that startled me. I hadn't heard of it until you reached out," said state senator Liz Krueger, who sponsored the bill that decriminalized pot in New York.
Krueger said New York's law, as in some other states, was drafted to protect children — in part by banning "packages, labels, shapes and products made to be attractive to children."
But there are unresolved questions, like how the state will define "attractive to children." Also, if edibles are banned in forms like gummy bears, what about other brightly colored shapes?
"Everyone’s waiting for us to set up the rules of the road," Krueger said.
The senator is laying much of the blame for that lack of regulation at the feet of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is facing multiple investigations on multiple fronts.
"I feel the governor is preoccupied with many other issues he's facing," said Krueger, charging that Cuomo has failed to get the state's Office of Cannabis Management and its board up and running.
That board would be responsible for developing the detailed regulations for the industry — and with the legal market on hold, Krueger said, the illegal market is filling the void.
Cuomo's office said its work to stand up the cannabis management office was well underway.
"New York is actively working to ensure the Office of Cannabis Management and the Cannabis Control Board can begin implementing a safe, equitable and transparent adult-use cannabis industry as soon as possible. As part of this process, we are working to appoint individuals with diverse experiences and subject matter expertise to both entities. Once the Cannabis Control Board is in place, the Office can then be officially formed," a spokesman said.
Cuomo's office also pointed out that any edibles being consumed in New York are still illegal under the bill Krueger sponsored, meaning the products are illicit or coming from other states, as opposed to falling through regulatory loopholes.