In late May, Morgan McCoy found her 6-year-old daughter lethargic and unresponsive. She later learned her daughter had accidentally eaten a marijuana gummy that she thought was candy. After a scary night in the hospital, she’s recovered. But McCoy is sharing their story to encourage safer packaging of marijuana edibles and to urge parents to properly store it.
“If we have marijuana packaged like candy, children are far more likely to eat it than if it were packaged like medication, which is what it is,” McCoy, 39, the “retro realtor” in Pensacola, Florida, told TODAY. “It’s a drug and all of our drugs are packaged in childproof stuff, even vitamins and children’s Tylenol.”
Accidental ingestion of a marijuana gummy
On the last Friday in May, McCoy, her husband and daughter went to visit McCoy’s in-laws for a gathering. About 30 people were swimming and spending time together. McCoy left for a bit to visit with her sister, who she hadn’t seen in two years. While she was gone, other friends and family looked after her daughter. At some point during that time, McCoy’s daughter ingested a marijuana gummy that had accidentally been left in a room she had used to change her clothes.
“Every adult I showed it to was like, ‘I would have eaten that,’” McCoy said. “I truly think it’s something to do with this packaging. If I see candy, I’m going to eat it if I am 6-years-old.”
Some of the children, including McCoy’s daughter, took a nap. When McCoy returned, she wasn’t surprised her daughter was sleeping after a day in the pool. But then McCoy couldn’t wake her. By then a friend realized her edible was missing and called to let the family know.
“My daughter was laying on the ground. I picked her up and I was praying it was just fatigue but she was non-responsive,” McCoy explained. “I told them to call 911. Whenever I turned back around and I saw her, she had sat up and was seizing.”
An ambulance took her to the local emergency department where doctors monitored her overnight. McCoy and her husband were terrified.
“We just stayed the night in the hospital watching her breaths go into single digits and her heart rate go through the roof,” she said. “I just thank God that there was only one in there.”
According to a photo of the package McCoy shared of the Faded Fruits product, the gummy her daughter ate had 50 mg of THC. TODAY tried to contact the company for a statement but could not find any contact information for it.
“Even with the one (gummy), the next day, after three quarters of a bag of fluids, her urine was still brown. So it definitely affected her kidneys in a negative way,” McCoy said.
Morgan Fox, media relations director at the National Cannabis Industry Association, told TODAY that 10 mg of THC is the industry norm.
“Ten milligram individual unit dosage is becoming the industry standard,” he told TODAY. “There is some variation on the amount of, like, total THC allowed per package, but for the most part it's around 100 milligrams. And there's also rules about the individual dosing, being very easily demarcated, so you can't just have a cookie that has 100 milligrams. It would have to be very clearly delineated into 10 pieces.”
Due to the dosing and lack of information about the company, Fox speculated that the gummy may have been an "unregulated" or "illicit" product.
Marijuana safety and children
Over the past three years, the American Association of Poison Control Centers has observed an increase in calls about children age 12 and under being exposed to marijuana (via smoking, edibles, tinctures or marijuana plants). In 2019, the AAPCC received 2,767 calls about children being exposed to marijuana. In 2020, they received 5,083 calls about children under 12 exposed to marijuana and this year the number of calls they received so far is 3,104.
For comparison’s sake, a 2020 report from Safe Kids Worldwide, a nonprofit organization that works to keep kids safe from injuries, found there were nearly 11,000 emergency department visits related to pain relievers among children under 6 in 2017-2018.
Fox said one reason marijuana exposure numbers might be increasing is that parents in states with some form of legalized marijuana don’t feel as worried about reporting accidental ingestion.
“Prior to legalization, parents stood the possibility of potentially losing custody of their kids, if it was discovered that their kids had accidentally ingested cannabis products, and this even holds true in states where medical cannabis was legal,” he said. “It's not really so much the case anymore. But I think a lot of cases, that this may have been happening to be underreported.”
Doctors and poison control experts worry, though, that packaging for marijuana isn’t secure enough. Rules for packaging vary by state.
“We have legalized marijuana. The requirements for packaging, child safety proof containers, labeling, all of that, has not followed as quickly,” Dr. Erica Michiels, a pediatric emergency medicine doctor at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan, told TODAY. “If you go buy a bottle of ibuprofen at the pharmacy it is going to have a childproof cap on it.”
Fox said the industry is changing its approach to make its products less appealing to children.
“Operators were already removing things like cartoons or any sort of resemblance to existing traditional candy products, largely because it’s the responsible thing to do,” Fox said. “But also to potentially avoid lawsuits.”
Can one overdose on marijuana?
While some packages might look appealing to children, there’s another problem. Many adults believe that marijuana is safe and don’t realize it should be stored like medication or alcohol. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says fatal overdoses are “unlikely” but still warns that taking too much can cause problems, such as increased blood pressure, confusion, anxiety, hallucinations and speeding heart rate, for example.
“People don’t understand or believe that you can overdose on marijuana. I always try to describe that this isn’t your grandpa’s marijuana from 1965. This is a very different drug in terms of the potency,” Michiels said. “Young children can overdose on marijuana quite easily because it’s a really potent product now and they have very tiny bodies. But we even see fully grown teenagers overdose on marijuana.”
What’s more, children often accidentally eat many doses of edibles, meaning they ingest doses much higher than what an adult would take.
“The bags are colorful. The often have cartoon drawings. They look very enticing to little kids,” Michiels said. “Little kids don’t sneak a corner of a candy bar. They eat the whole candy bar.”
Symptoms of an overdose include:
- Abnormal heart beats, what’s called arrhythmia.
- Unconsciousness or unresponsiveness.
- Slow or labored breathing.
“All of this can become a life-threatening situation very quickly,” Michiels said.
She stresses that parents should call 911 or go to the emergency room if their child ate marijuana. Medical staff want to help the child not punish the parents.
“Nobody is there to judge the parent or be angry with the parent,” Michiels said. “We really just want to take care of their child.”
Parents can also call poison control at 1-800-222-1222, especially if they’re worried about being punished. These conversations are confidential and parents are speaking to experts for real time advice.
“If you have a concern or there is a symptom, call the poison control center right away. It’s a nationwide toll-free number to an expert who is a registered pharmacist, nurse or physician,” Julie A. Weber, director of the Missouri Poison Center and board president of AAPCC, told TODAY. “You’re getting help right in that moment.”
Weber also stresses that the poison control centers care foremost about helping.
“Our main goal it to treat the person,” she said. “(We’re) not judging the person who’s calling.”
Michiels said there’s no real treatment for marijuana overdoses in children other than observing them and supporting them. If a child’s breathing is severely compromised, for example, doctors might have to intubate them and put them on a ventilator to help.
That’s why preventing curious children from finding and potentially eating marijuana edibles remains essential. The experts agree that parents should store their edibles somewhere out of reach and locked.
“Parents should not be treating marijuana as any different than a medication,” Weber said. “It really does need to be away from young children.”
As for McCoy’s daughter, she’s “back to herself” and the family hopes there won’t be any lingering effects from her encounter.
“God put this on my plate for a reason,” McCoy said. “There are always going to be kids who get into things that they shouldn’t. And unless we fix the packaging, (accidental ingestion) is going to keep increasing and increasing.”