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Virginia mom charged with murder after child ingests candy that contained THC

While their sale is illegal in Virginia, consumers can still buy products that look like gummies or Skittles, Cheetos or Funyons infused with tetrahydrocannabinol
or THC – the ingredient in cannabis that produces a high. Consuming a large dose can cause hallucinations, vomiting, tremor, anxiety, dizziness, confusion and loss of consciousness, but it’s not known to have killed adults.

For children, however, that’s not the case. Rutherfoord Rose, holds a PhD in pharmacy and directs the Poison Center at Virginia Commonwealth University.

 THC-laden products are being sold in packages that look like mainstream candy, cookies, cereals and snacks.
U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration
THC-laden products are being sold in packages that look like mainstream candy, cookies, cereals and snacks.

“It’s clearly affecting the central nervous system and in particular the part of the autonomous nervous system that affects heart rate and breathing," he explains. "The numbers of breaths you take per minute are decreased and the quality of those breaths are decreased.”

As a result, the brains of young children can be deprived of oxygen, and without treatment those kids can die. The University of Virginia Blue Ridge Poison Center has yet to record a death, but its director has seen a growing number of cases.

“Starting in July of 2020 to June of 2021 we had 52 cases. In July of 2021 to June of 2022 we had 117 cases. About a third of those are toddler age group, and some of those have been quite sick. We’ve had three that have been in the intensive care unit,” says Dr. Chris Holstege.

There are no antidotes for children who ingest THC, but a hospital can administer oxygen and fluids to move the drug more quickly through a patient’s system.

The key, Holstege adds, is to know – up front – why a child might be throwing up, struggling to breathe or feeling disoriented. Unfortunately, parents don’t always share that information, leading doctors to do expensive and ultimately unnecessary tests.

“We have had cases where kids have come in with altered mental status—gotten really expensive workups for what looks like seizures to find out that they’re actually positive for cannabis.”

And at VCU, Rose says prosecuting parents might discourage others from being honest about what’s happened.

”Children get into medications all the time. That would include over-the-counter medicines. That would include multi-vitamins, and it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a bad parent.”

But in Spotsylvania County, the mother of a four-year-old who died after ingesting THC-infused gummies is now in jail, facing charges of felony murder and neglect. Investigators say the boy might have survived if he had gotten medical care sooner.

Virginia’s attorney general warned, last summer, that he would be tough on sellers of copycat products that contain THC. Holding a bag of chocolate chip cookies labeled Trips Ahoy, he told reporters:

“This is not by accident. This not somebody messing up a label. This is directly marketing to our children.”

The state’s penalty for a first offense is a warning, and Jason Miyares has yet to prosecute anyone. Instead, he’s asking Congress to make these potentially dangerous products illegal nationwide.

Dr. Holstege, who has met with lawmakers to discuss this problem, says its solution is not controversial.

“Everyone is in agreement, including those who are representing the hemp industry, that this is not a good idea. To have products with high THC content that look like candy. That’s just a recipe for disaster.”

He and Rose also agree that parents should treat these products carefully – putting them out of sight and reach of children.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief