March 3, 2011 -- Children in California and Illinois have become ill in the last several weeks after eating cookies and brownies made with marijuana.
In the most recent case, several elementary school students from Vallejo, Calif., got sick after eating marijuana-laced cookies given to one of them by a convenience store clerk. The cookies were made by a Colorado company that says they are legal because they are sold for medical purposes. The kids apparently didn't know that; they shared the cookies during lunch and reported feeling nauseated about half an hour later.
According to the school district, the children have been released from the hospital and are doing well.
"It's unclear if any of the children knew the cookies contained cannabis," police Sgt. Jeff Bassett said in a press release. "The packages are not clearly marked." Police are still trying to find the person who gave the cookies to the store clerk.
At least one state is now considering action against these marijuana edibles. According to local media reports, Rep. Cindy Acree, a Republican state legislator from Colorado, has proposed a ban on the sale of any food or drink containing marijuana, even if it has clearance for medical use. The bill is currently under debate. Acree said she is considering amendments to the bill that would permit the sale of edibles, but impose strict labeling, packaging and marketing regulations.
Some members of Colorado's law enforcement community support a ban because making these edibles widely available can be very tempting to children.
Experts say that situations like these show that medical marijuana is an issue that's still evolving, and many facets of it pose challenges to lawmakers, the public and the marijuana business, including how to regulate it appropriately where it is legal.
People on both sides of the issue agree it's essential to make sure marijuana stays out of the hands of children, although many advocates of medical marijuana think if a child needs it for medical reasons, it should be available.
Children who ingest marijuana can become ill, but just how sick they get depends on a number of factors, including the child's age, weight, the potency of the drug and how much the child gets.
"Kids may become giddy, constantly repetitive, they may stare off in space, may have some hallucinations," said Dr. Thomas Abramo, professor of pediatrics and emergency medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tenn. "Vomiting is a kind of protective mechanism. If children vomit, it makes me wonder if there's something else in it."
So-called "street" marijuana sometimes contains other chemicals such as ketamine or morphine, Abramo said.
The problem with edibles is that they often contain very potent cannabis, and people who eat them may not know just how much they're ingesting.
"I think it will become more of an issue with medical marijuana," said Abramo. "Kids will start getting into it without knowing the potency and strength." Other experts, however, say these incidents are rare and more likely to involve marijuana obtained on the street.
Edible Marijuana: Medicine or Health Hazard?
Marijuana for medicinal purposes is now legal in 15 states and the District of Columbia. The federal government still considers marijuana illegal. Under U.S. law, it is a Schedule 1 controlled substance, meaning it has no approved medical use.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency says marijuana is harmful, which is why it's illegal. The agency also says legalizing drugs will lead to more use and addiction.
Despite the disparity between federal law and the law of some states, policy experts say the public is becoming more accepting of legalized medical marijuana and there's a better consensus between the public, legislators and those who sell medical marijuana.
"Twelve states are now considering laws, and each state is learning from the mistakes of others," said Morgan Fox, a spokesperson with the Marijuana Policy Project, an organization working to increase support for legalization of marijuana. "As other states have encountered problems, they are learning more that governments can work with people to deal with issues that come up."
Medical marijuana advocates say growers and producers are working on their own ways to educate people about responsible use of the drug.
"A lot of dispensaries are giving people literature, there's another group going around putting on conferences talking about the different ways of consuming it, and there's a better understanding about the need to better labels on it," said Chris Conrad, an author and medicinal marijuana advocate.
Advocates are trying to prevent incidents like the one at the Vallejo elementary school.
"Most people are trying hard to avoid this kind of situation so they don't attract federal scrutiny," said Robert MacCoun, professor of law and society at the University of California, Berkeley. "Local communities are very involved in regulating medical marijuana."
Conrad said despite what responsible adults do, the message to kids should be clear.
"The only reason to use marijuana is if you need it for a medical reason."