I never thought I’d be writing an article for ASHA about marijuana, but because I live in Colorado, I’ve got the latest news on weed to pass along to my fellow SLPs. In fact, if you were sitting here with me in the privacy of my own home (and you were over 21), we could chat about it while lawfully smoking a joint, munching on an edible cannabis-laced cookie, sucking on a marijuana lollipop or even, inhaling the vapors from an e-cigarette packed with marijuana oil. That’s just a sampling of the options we have to get high in the “mile high city.” Before you shout “I’m coming over!” I should probably disclose that I’m not a marijuana user, medical or recreational. If your next thought is “But I DON’T live in Colorado (or Washington) so this doesn’t apply to me – at least professionally” please read this entire article. Colorado law is considered a “springboard for other states” to legalize marijuana soon. Plus, illegal shipping to other states, often discovered during a routine traffic violation committed by the average Joe next door, has increased significantly. According to the El Paso Intelligence Center & National Seizure System, the mini-vans and SUVs bringing home “souvenirs” from Colorado aren’t just from the states bordering the Rocky Mountains. New York, Florida, Illinois and Wisconsin were some of the most popular destinations and consequently, you may experience some unexpected safety issues if you are providing home-based care for children and adults.
In an effort to educate therapists on the new laws and our responsibility to inform our families of issues that may arise with recreational marijuana use, Jane Woodard, the executive director of Colorado Drug Endangered Children, is traveling the state providing health care professionals the necessary information to keep ourselves and the families we serve safe. SLPs are required by law to report suspected conditions that would result in neglect/safety issues or abuse of children and adults. However, many of our families are simply not aware of the safety concerns and home based therapists are often the first resource for educating those families who choose to partake in using, growing or processing recreational marijuana.
Given the various populations that we serve, here is an overview of some of the safety issues:
Infants: As a pediatric feeding therapist, just one of the populations in my care are babies who require support for breast and bottle feeding. In this Colorado culture of embracing our new freedom, mothers are commenting to me without restraint that they’re using marijuana to combat nausea during pregnancy or enjoy “a little pot now and then” while breastfeeding.Studies indicate that by age four alarming changes occur in children that have had prenatal exposure. It’s noteworthy that the studies focused on a much lower amounts of delta-9-tetrhydrocannibinol (THC: the chemical that produces the psychoactive effect) than what is present in today’s super-charged marijuana products. The children demonstrated “increased behavioral problems and decreased performance on visual perceptual tasks, language comprehension, sustained attention and memory.” Marijuana use while breastfeeding is contraindicated because the THC is excreted into breast milk and stored in fat and is suspected to impact a baby’s motor development. There are no established “pump and dump” guidelines for THC and it stays in the bloodstream for much longer than other drugs. Consider the increased risks from both second-hand smoke and third-hand smoke or the “contamination that lingers” after smoking, including an increased risk for SIDS and more. For the home-based SLP, exposure to second and third-hand smoke or residue means that I will likely carry that aroma with me to the next home. I am responsible for the safety of all of the children I treat, and many are medically fragile and/or have sensory challenges and would be impacted by these odors. Today, I am faced with difficult conversations with parents that I never imagined I would have.
Children: In four short months, from January to April 2014, Colorado’s Poison Control Center has reported 11 children who ingested edibles, one as young as five months old. Over half of those children had to be hospitalized and two were admitted to the ICU. Consider that those are the reported cases – and what goes unreported is difficult to ascertain. While the law requires that the packaging cannot be designed to appeal to kids, current practices are questionable. Some argue that edibles are packaged too much like junk food, with boxes of “Pot-tarts” similar to the popular toaster pastry, bottles of fizzy “soda-pot” and candy bars with labels that rival Mars® and Hershey’s®. In April 2014, Karma-Candy was the marijuana candy that a father in Denver consumed just before hallucinating and killing his wife, who was on the phone with 911 dispatchers at the time. She could be heard yelling to her kids to go downstairs as she desperately tried to get help for her family.
Packaging of certain products must also be in an opaque and re-sealable container, but that law only applies to the time of purchase. Plus, most edibles contain multiple servings and it’s not unusual for one cookie to serve six people. Even adults are mistakenly eating whole cookies and in April 2014, one visiting college student consequently jumped to his death from a hotel balcony after eating too much of an edible. A New York Times columnist visiting Colorado ate a whole candy bar labeled as 16 servings, and “laid in a hallucinatory state for 8 hours.” Home baked marijuana options are equally confusing. As a feeding therapist, I used to be comfortable offering foods to a child from a family’s pantry. But now, a tempting plate of brownies may be more than just a plate of brownies. By law, edibles, like any marijuana product (even plants), must be in an “enclosed, locked space.” However, it is not unusual for Colorado therapists to arrive for their home visit and find a bong, topical lotions or a half-eaten edible on the living room coffee table. Early intervention and home health care agencies are considering how to educate families on the first day of contact, during the intake process. Susan Elling, MA, CCC-SLP, who treats both children and adults in the home, notes that “It will be very important to have an open and honest conversation with a patient (and their family) regarding marijuana use as part of taking the medical history – just as we do for alcohol and smoking.”
Adults: Ms. Elling reported that “the population in need of homecare services may be more likely to use marijuana to control pain and nausea” because family members are more likely to suggest it and there will no longer be a need to obtain a medical marijuana card. Ms. Elling also notes that marijuana “affects sleep, balance, coordination, and cognition. This may be amplifying the conditions a patient is already dealing with related to medical issues. It can also significantly raise anxiety. These are all factors that increase fall risk, confusion, lead to poor judgment, and can setback a patient’s recovery. It may be very difficult to determine what issues are related to the patient’s medical condition and which are related to the marijuana use. Interventions, progress and prognosis may be affected.” Edibles in particular are a safety hazard for this population, because of the inability to self-regulate. There is no predicting how an edible will effect one person or another.
“It’s not your grandmother’s marijuana,” reported Dr. Richard Zane, who is the head of the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of Colorado Hospital. Well-meaning family members, hoping to control their loved one’s discomfort, may not realize that the strength of today’s marijuana is significantly higher than the pot your cool grandma smoked in the 60’s. In fact, THC levels represent a 121% increase just from 1999 to 2010. Family members may not understand that the strength and effect of the drug varies from product to product. For example, compare two hits on today’s joint and an individual will ingest approximately five mg of the chemicals that produce the psychoactive and/or sedative effects compared to up to 100 mg in one packaged edible. Plus, even using the exact same method of ingestion does not guarantee the exact same dosage every time. Zane reported in this interview with Colorado Public Radio that the “drug isn’t always spread evenly through food or candy, so several people eating the same amounts can be ingesting different quantities of marijuana.”
The uncertainty of dosage and effects has Elling on guard: “I am concerned that the high potency, unpredictable effect, easy availability, and unclear dosage information of edibles may have serious consequences for homecare patients with already fragile health. It is also misleadingly considered quite “benign” and safe compared to alcohol consumption and smoking. I feel the need to know the signs and symptoms of a marijuana overdose and know the contraindications with any other prescription or OTC drugs they may be taking and be able to educate my patients and their caregivers regarding this issue.”
Additional Safety Concerns: In the course of this short article, it’s impossible to cover all of the safety issues, including those related to growing and processing marijuana in the home. These concerns include electrical hazards from impromptu wiring (not to code); cultivation hazards such a mold and poor air quality for medically fragile patients; increased carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide necessary for growing; chemical exposures and improper storage of pesticides and poisonous fertilizers; THC on household surfaces and airborne exposure; and exploding hash oil labs. From January to April 2014, hash oil explosions occurred on a weekly basis in Colorado, some triggered just by turning on a nearby light switch.
Consider Family Functioning: The impact on safety is the tip of the iceberg. Woodard explained that home health professionals must consider a parent’s behavior when using marijuana, the impact on a child’s behavior and family functioning overall. Difficult but often necessary questions to ask include: What steps have you taken to protect your children and family members? How do you store your marijuana and paraphernalia? What are you like when you use? Most importantly, she recommended asking yourself “Do I believe that the conditions in this home could reasonably result in harm” to anyone in this household? If so, educate the family and be mindful of mandatory reporting laws.
Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP, treats children birth to teens who have difficulty eating. She is the author of Happy Mealtimes with Happy Kids and the producer of the award-winning kids’ CD Dancing in the Kitchen: Songs that Celebrate the Joy of Food! Melanie’s two-day course on pediatric feeding is offered for ASHA CEUs and includes both her book and CD for each attendee. She can be reached at Melanie@mymunchbug.com.