Poison control centers in the United States now receive more calls about adolescents abusing cannabis than alcohol or any other substance, according to a new study.
Many helpline calls about cannabis involve edible products, the researchers noted.
Over-the-counter medications – especially dextromethorphan-containing cough and cold medications and oral antihistamines, such as Benadryl – are other commonly abused substances.
But cannabis recently started topping the list.
“Since 2018, the most reported misused/abused substance involved exposure to marijuana,” according to the study, which wasin Clinical Toxicology.
Adrienne Hughes, MD, assistant professor of emergency medicine at Oregon Health & Science University, Portland, and colleagues analyzed calls to United States poison control centers between 2000 and 2020. They focused on 338,000 calls about intentional substance abuse or misuse, including for the purpose of getting high, in individuals aged 6-18 years.
The calls were made to 55 certified helplines for health professionals, public health agencies, and members of the public seeking guidance about exposures to various substances.
Cannabis vs. alcohol
In 2000, alcohol was the substance involved in the largest number of cases (1,318, or 9.8% of all calls). Between 2000 and 2013, cases of alcohol abuse exceeded the number of cannabis cases each year.
But that changed in 2014, when cannabis overtook alcohol.
Over the 20-year study period, calls about exposure to cannabis increased 245%, from 510 in 2000 to 1,761 in 2020.
Edibles played a key role.
“Edible marijuana preparations accounted for the highest increase in call rates, compared with all other forms of marijuana,” the researchers reported.
Edible products are “often marketed in ways that are attractive to young people, and they are considered more discrete and convenient,” Dr. Hughes said. But they can have “unpredictable” effects.
“Compared to smoking cannabis, which typically results in an immediate high, intoxication from edible forms usually takes several hours, which may lead some individuals to consume greater amounts and experience unexpected and unpredictable highs,” she said.
For example, prior research has shown that edible cannabis consumption may lead to more acute psychiatric symptoms and cardiovascular events than does inhaled cannabis.
Trends in alcohol use may have held relatively steady, despite some minor declines in the poison center data, Dr. Hughes said.
“Anecdotally, there hasn’t been an obvious notable reduction in alcohol cases in the emergency department,” she said. “However, I wouldn’t expect a huge change given our data only found a slow mild decline in alcohol cases over the study period.”
The increase in cannabis-related calls coincides with more states legalizing or decriminalizing the drug for medical or recreational purposes. Currently, 21 states have approved recreational cannabis for adults who are at least 21 years old.
What are the risks?
Parents typically call a poison center about cannabis exposure after they see or suspect that their child has ingested loose cannabis leaves or edibles containing the substance, Dr. Hughes said.
“The poison center provides guidance to parents about whether or not their child can be watched at home or requires referral to a health care facility,” she said. “While marijuana carries a low risk for severe toxicity, it can be inebriating to the point of poor judgment, risk of falls or other injury, and occasionally a panic reaction in the novice user and unsuspecting children who accidentally ingest these products.”
Intentional misuse or abuse tends to occur in older children and teens.
Nonprescription drugs have a high potential for abuse because they are legal and may be perceived as safe, Dr. Hughes said.
If a child has a history of misusing or abusing substances or if a parent is worried that their child is at high risk for this behavior, they should consider securing medicines in a lock box, she advised.
That applies to cannabis too.
“I would recommend that parents also consider locking up their cannabis products,” she said.
The National Poison Data System relies on voluntary reporting, and the data are not expected to represent the actual number of intentional misuse and abuse exposures, the researchers noted.
Poison control centers in the United States are available for consultation about patients with known or suspected cannabis ingestion or other suspected poisonings (1-800-222-1222).
The researchers had no disclosures.
A version of this article first appeared on.