Smoked or Swallowed, These Legal Drugs Are Killing Kids
Policy + Politics

Smoked or Swallowed, These Legal Drugs Are Killing Kids


For years, in the face of troubling statistics over poverty and hunger, gun violence, child abuse and exposure to lead and other toxic chemicals in the environment, the U.S. has grappled with the problem of children’s health.

Public health officials and physicians have just added two more serious childhood dangers to the mix: the nationwide epidemic of opioid abuse and the surge in the availability and use of marijuana.

Related: The 10 Most Prescribed Drugs in America

While the widespread abuse of opioids, including painkillers, heroin and fentanyl, is killing adults and older teenagers at an alarming rate, it is also killing toddlers and young children who get into their parents’ medicine cabinets, according to a new study in the journal JAMA Pediatrics. The rate of children hospitalized for opioid overdosing and poisoning has more than doubled since 1997, involving 13,052 children ages one to 19. Whether by accident or by choice, 176 subsequently died.

And the growing legalized use of marijuana for both medicinal and recreational purposes may be fostering serious developmental problems in infants and children born to mothers who have been using the drug, as CBS’s 60 Minutes reported over the weekend.

Currently, four states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational use and 21 others have approved it for medical purposes, such as alleviating the pain of cancer victims. Five other states will hold ballot initiatives next week on whether to legalize pot for recreational use -- including California, Massachusetts, Maine, Arizona and Nevada.

Related: How Big Pharma Lobbyists Make the Opioid Crisis Worse

Colorado by far has one of the most liberal laws for the sale and personal use of pot. Dr. Steven Simerville, a pediatrician and medical director of the newborn intensive care unit at Saint Mary Corwin Medical Center in Pueblo County, told 60 Minutes that he has noticed more and more babies being born with pot in their system since marijuana was legalized in his state.

Although Simerville’s observations are largely anecdotal, he said that during the first nine months of this year, 27 babies born at his Colorado hospital tested positive for Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient in pot. He said the rate positive testing is on target to be 15 percent higher than last year.

“I have babies up on the unit right now who are positive for marijuana,” he told Dr. Jonathan LaPook of 60 Minutes.

According to the report, research suggests that babies exposed to marijuana in utero could develop verbal, memory and behavioral problems during childhood. Moreover, teenagers exposed to marijuana – especially the new versions of the drug that are more powerful than the pot available in the 1980s – could suffer from problems in brain growth.

Related: As Heroin Addiction Grows Like a Cancer, Obama Orders New Health Treatments

Simerville said that he tries to explain to pregnant women that, even if they aren’t smoking very much marijuana, “the baby is getting seven times more than you’re taking and that … this drug has been shown to cause harm in developing brains.”

While pot smoking may pose a serious health problem for a growing number of young Americans, it pales by comparison with the deadly effects of the opioid abuse epidemic that go well beyond mental health and development.

The JAMA study prepared by Julie R. Gaither, an epidemiologist at the Yale School of Medicine, found that more than 13,000 children were hospitalized over a 16-year period because of poisoning from opioid prescriptions of Percocet, Oxycodone, codeine and other high-risk drugs.

The study was based on an analysis of hospital discharge records and data collected every three years and indicated that the incidents of overdosing and poisoning were far greater among the very youngest children when compared to older kids. For example, the hospitalization of children ages one to four for ingesting opioids skyrocketed by 205 percent, while the hospitalization for people ages 15 to 19 increased by 161 percent.

Gaither told The New York Times that in the case of the youngest children, many of them got into their parents’ or grandparents’ medicine, perhaps mistaking the drugs for candy. Older teenagers took the drugs either for recreational purposes or to try to commit suicide, she said.

“These data underscore the dangers associated with the widespread availability of prescription opioids, particularly for adolescents at risk for depression,” Gaither and her co-authors wrote. “Reducing pediatric opioid exposure and misuse will require a combination of public health interventions, policy initiatives, and consumer-product regulations.”

Opioids were the most common cause of the roughly 47,000 drug-overdose deaths in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and now the problem is extending to the very youngest in this country.