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In the five years since Michigan voters approved recreational pot, cannabis culture has engulfed everyday life, especially in Detroit.

Billboards promising speedy weed delivery are everywhere. So too is a distinct skunky smell that lingers on streets, alleyways, and in apartment buildings.

The increased access to weed is contributing to a growing public health problem: More children are unintentionally ingesting marijuana edibles, getting sick, and going to the hospital.

From 2020 to 2022, the Michigan Poison and Drug Information Center, which takes calls from across the state, recorded 801 incidents of cannabis toxicity among children ages 5 and younger. That represents a nearly 75% increase of unintentional youth cannabis ingestion, a “worrisome and concerning” spike, said Varun Vohra, the center’s academic and managing director. Meanwhile, cases of unintentional cannabis use by children ages 4 to 13 grew by 60% from 2020 to 2023.

These trends have led public health professionals, local leaders, and school officials to search for solutions. In Detroit, school leaders are highlighting the urgency of what is likely a statewide problem. Detroit Public Schools Community District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and school board members recently issued a plea for help to lawmakers and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Vitti said cannabis use — intentional or not — is widespread in Detroit schools, disrupting classes and sending students to the hospital nearly every week.

This school year alone, the district has counted roughly 750 incidents involving marijuana as well as vape pens that students use for tobacco. The latter make up a huge chunk of those incidents.

The public climate for cannabis is such that a 9-year-old, Kaydn Mahouli, complained about the billboards for weed to Detroit City Council members.

All of this speaks to a new frontier for child health and safety that has officials in schools and beyond scrambling to address an unintended outcome of cannabis legalization.

Child cannabis poisoning on the rise nationwide

Michigan voted to legalize recreational marijuana in 2018, and recreational dispensaries opened their doors in December 2019. In Detroit, the first dispensary to sell recreational weed began operation in January 2023, a delay stemming from legal battles over the city’s marijuana ordinance.

Dr. Kelly Levasseur, chief of pediatric emergency medicine at Children’s Hospital of Michigan, said the number of young patients entering the emergency department after the legalization of recreational marijuana rose dramatically.

“In 2020, during COVID … I’d have maybe one patient come in every few months, and now it’s probably every other week,” she said. “It is so common.”

Levasseur said toddlers and children, from roughly 16 months to 6 years old, comprise the majority of patients suffering from cannabis intoxication. They arrive with telltale symptoms of central nervous system depression: They are disorientated, sleepy, and confused as parents carry them into the waiting room. In severe cases, a child’s respiratory function becomes compromised.

“We can almost recognize these kids when they’re walking down the hallway,” Levasseur said.

Meanwhile, she is also treating teenagers for cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome, an illness caused by daily cannabis use that results in severe cyclical nausea and vomiting. Levasseur said it typically resolves when the patient completely stops using marijuana.

Dr. Jason Vieder, vice chair of the emergency department at Henry Ford Health, said the issue is especially acute among young children who get their hands on temptingly sweet cannabis gummies, cookies and brownies.

Part of the problem, not only for children but also young people and adults, is that the dosage in these products is an “inexact science,” Vieder said. He said that while prescription pills might have lines scored down the middle to accurately separate half doses, eating half an edible does not necessarily mean people are getting half the supposed marijuana dose.

The issue is certainly not unique to Michigan.

Bart Hammig, a scholar of public health at University of Arkansas, has published research on the rise of pediatric cannabis poisoning nationwide. Although the research is challenging given federal laws about cannabis, Hammig told Chalkbeat that “the rate of [emergency department] visits associated with cannabis use has increased about four to five times in the past decade.”

Even states that pioneered the template for legal cannabis struggle to address this issue.

Colorado became the first state, along with Washington state, to legalize recreational pot in 2013. But doctors like Sam Wang of Children’s Hospital Colorado still see a high volume of children with cannabis poisoning.

“So our state has kind of led the way … with things that include child resistant packaging, marketing and advertising regulations, dose limitations … public education, etc. And we’d like to think that this has helped,” Wang said. “But unfortunately, the rates have continued to increase.”

Wang and other physicians and researchers stressed the need for more public awareness campaigns, especially when it comes to adults leaving cannabis edibles around the house where little hands can grab them.

Searching for ways to reduce kids’ cannabis use

Vitti and school board members have outlined several ways to curb cannabis use among kids, including stricter regulations on packaging and labeling of marijuana products.

They are also calling for detection systems in schools for marijuana and vape pens, and public awareness campaigns funded through cannabis revenues and taxes.

Vitti said the need to address these issues is deepening. In an interview with Chalkbeat, he cited two recent drug-related incidents that involved a second and third grader. “When we have young children involved, there is definitely a greater sense of urgency,” he said.

When asked for a response to Vitti’s letter, a spokesperson for Whitmer referred Chalkbeat to Michigan’s Cannabis Regulatory Agency.

That office has rules aimed at keeping pot edibles and products away from kids. The rules prohibit products that could appeal to children and minors based on shape, label, and overall packaging. For example, cartoons or caricatures are not allowed, nor the word “candy,” and products must be sold in opaque, child-resistant packages.

“Enforcement of these rules has been — and continues to be — a high priority for the CRA for years,” David Harns, a spokesperson for the agency, said in an email to Chalkbeat.

Harns wrote that the image Vitti included in his letter of marijuana edibles masquerading in packages that resemble Sour Patch Kids, Jolly Ranchers, and Skittles does not represent “regulated Michigan products.”

DPSCD Police did not respond to Chalkbeat’s request for comment about how often school police are encountering these products in Detroit schools.

Detroit City Council Member Angela Whitfield Calloway, a former Detroit public schools educator, said she is “beyond alarmed” about the situation.

She said more cannabis revenue should go toward funding robust education and awareness campaigns in traditional public, charter, and private schools.

“We have to have outreach, and we can’t depend on the schools because the schools are reaching out to us. They’re saying, ‘City of Detroit, we need your help,’’ Calloway said.

The proliferation of billboards advertising recreational cannabis across the city is also on her radar after comments to the City Council from Mahouli, the 9-year-old who expressed his concerns about children seeing the same billboards he sees “everywhere” that advertise marijuana.

Mahouli’s grandmother, Jacqueline Miller, explained to council members that Mahouli helps his mother at her substance abuse clinic in Pontiac and wants to become a doctor so he can take over the clinic one day.

Calloway has directed Detroit’s Legislative Policy Division to explore how the city could potentially restrict such advertisements.

Meanwhile, Council Member Scott Benson has proposed earmarking 10% of gross receipts from cannabis sales for youth substance abuse programs. Detroit currently uses 2% of its cannabis tax revenues for substance abuse outreach, and that includes a $40,000 youth program launching this summer through the Detroit Health Department. Benson says that’s not enough.

Roughly $101 million in state cannabis taxes from last year went to the K-12 School Aid Fund.

Although often less novel than marijuana, tobacco is also attracting similar concerns.

State Sen. Stephanie Chang, a Democrat from Detroit, said she is generally open to allocating more cannabis revenue for prevention. But she wants to drill down on more details and talk to stakeholders. And she pointed to her bill to address vaping, which includes banning flavored vapes, earmarking taxes for tobacco prevention and K-12 education, and enacting more regulations on businesses selling tobacco products.

Chang was recently at a student roundtable at Davis Aerospace Technical High School where students were asked if they know someone who has been harmed by vaping. “I think almost every student raised their hand,” she said.

Vitti has similar concerns. “The vape pens are even more dangerous [than cannabis] as far as usage and it’s a major problem,” he told Chalkbeat. “And that’s where we are seeing gas stations, close to school, selling vape pens, to underage children. That needs to be cracked down.”

Karmen Hanson, senior fellow with the National Conference of State Legislatures, has researched how states that were first to enter the so-called green rush, like Colorado and Washington, have incorporated public health into cannabis policy.

“Legislators and other policymakers will come back year after year, and regulators for that matter, too, to try to correct things that they believe need repairing or tweaking,” she said.

Hanson said local leaders now have the opportunity to learn from those examples.

Robyn Vincent is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit, covering Detroit schools and Michigan education policy. You can reach her at [email protected].

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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