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Adolescents and Edible Marijuana: Patterns and Problems

How do adolescents consume marijuana and are young people who consume marijuana edible products different from others who don’t use edible products when it comes to marijuana use and related beliefs?  A study carried out by the Prevention Research Center of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation helps answer these questions.

The rapidly changing legal status of marijuana and the growing marijuana market have led to an increase in the availability of food products such as cookies, brownies, and candies that are infused with marijuana or hashish (edibles). For example, in 2014 in Colorado, sales of infused edibles made up about 40 percent of the legal marijuana marketplace.  Even in states with legalized recreational use of marijuana, the legal age of use is 21.  Younger people, however, obtain and use marijuana in its various forms.  The current study examines the characteristics of adolescents who use edibles.

The researchers analyzed California Healthy Kids Survey data collected in one Northern California school district with a racially and ethnically diverse student population. Survey respondents were youth in grades 9 – 12. While recreational use of marijuana was not yet legal in California at the time of the study, medical marijuana was legal and fairly easily accessible.  Overall, 33% of respondents reported having used marijuana in their lifetime, and 50% of lifetime marijuana users reported using marijuana in the past 30 days. Seventy-two percent of lifetime marijuana users and 82% of past month marijuana users reported having used edibles in their lifetime.

Comparing marijuana users who have never used edibles to those users who have, the analysis indicated that edible users reported using marijuana more frequently in their lifetime. Edible users were also more likely to have used marijuana in the past 30 days, more frequently in the past 30 days, more likely on school property and more frequently on school property.

Edible users and non-users differed in their perceptions of risk; edible users were less likely to agree that edible use is very risky. Edible users also reported a younger age of first marijuana use and more attempts to stop using marijuana than non-edible users. Perceived risk of edible use among marijuana users was higher among marijuana users who do not use edibles, females, and those youth who perceive school rules to be clear. The findings indicate that prevalence of edible use is high among marijuana users, especially frequent users.

Analyses indicate that females were more likely to use edibles than males, even though males in general showed lower perceived risk of edible use. These findings along with earlier research results suggest that female users preferred edibles to smoking marijuana, because it was more covert and less potentially socially stigmatizing (e.g., odors, reputation as a “smoker”). It is also surprising that use is higher among females, even though they consider edible use to be more risky.  The research further indicates that edibles may be preferred for use while at school because, unlike smoking marijuana, eating marijuana-infused food leaves no odor.

As the availability and use of edibles are becoming more common, a number of problems have emerged. One problem is that some edibles are packaged to mimic candies and sweets, which raises concerns that this increases their appeal to children and young people. One study has shown that accidental marijuana ingestions among young children increased after medical marijuana was legalized and became available in Colorado in 2001 and that most of those ingestions involved marijuana edibles. A recent study examining the effects of marijuana legalization in Colorado blamed edible marijuana for the majority of health care visits for marijuana intoxication for all ages.

One of the reasons why edibles are likely responsible for increases in health care visits is that even adult users can fail to anticipate the delayed effects of ingested marijuana, which can take 30 minutes to 3 hours. As a result, the lag before experiencing the high may prompt users to inadvertently consume an overdose amount while waiting. In addition, THC in edibles can interact with other drugs in the body because the liver is involved in metabolizing the THC, unlike inhaled THC that directly affects the brain.

The study lead author, Dr. Bettina Friese stated: “With more states legalizing recreational and medical marijuana, we may see an increase in adolescents’ edible use due to the increasing normalization of marijuana use and retail availability. Policies and strategies to address access to edibles and edible use by youth are needed.  An attempt to ban edibles in Colorado was unsuccessful due to a strong industry outcry. But there are other regulations that can be considered, such as packaging, labeling, and dosage regulation.”  Dr. Friese pointed out that, for example, packaging of edibles should not mimic packaging of candy. Furthermore, regulating dosage and clearly marking edibles so that consumers can understand how much they can safely consume seems to be a reasonable precaution. For example, Colorado and Washington now require individually wrapped edibles of no more than 10 mg THC, and edibles containing more than one serving have to be clearly marked to indicate the size of one.  In Washington, edibles may not be packaged in a manner that makes them appealing to children (e.g., brightly colored packaging) and are required to be in child-proof packaging. Limiting access to edibles will be an important aspect of reducing and preventing youth’s use of edibles.

The full paper is: Friese, B., Slater, M. and Battle, R., Use of Marijuana Edibles by Adolescents in California, Journal of Primary Prevention (2017). doi:10.1007/s10935-017-0474-7.