Virginia is seeing a spike in THC-related poison control calls among toddlers and teens

Blue Ridge Poison Center says rise is largely due to products with extremely high concentrations of hemp-derived cannabinoids

By: - August 9, 2022 6:01 pm

Attorney General Jason Miyares displayed a bin of THC edible products from Virginia stores. Experts say the products have caused a spike in poison control calls involving young children and teens. (Photo by Graham Moomaw)

The director of the University of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Poison Center said he’s seeing an increase in calls involving synthetic THC products with the same intoxicating effects as marijuana.

In a Tuesday presentation to a recently formed state task force, Dr. Chris Holstege said the current spike was largely attributable to Delta-8, a lab-made cannabinoid extracted from hemp. While the compound was largely unheard of in 2020, the center announced a 30% increase in calls related to its consumption over the last year, largely linked to edibles shaped like popular candies.

The center reported 175 THC-related calls as of July 31 and an additional 217 calls in 2021, according to Holstege’s data. More than a third resulted in an emergency room visit, and 24 exposures required admission to a critical care unit.

The majority of Delta-8 exposures between 2021 and 2022 were among teenage patients and young adults aged 19 and older, including three UVA students who came into the emergency room last fall, Holstege said. He compared the current spike to 2009, when the center began reporting a growing number of calls related to other synthetic cannabinoids often called “Spice” or “K2.”

Unlike the mid-2000s spike, though, Holstege said some of the most recent Delta-8-related cases have involved young children, including 24 calls for patients aged five and younger. 

“In my practice here of 23 years at the University of Virginia, I’ve got to admit, I’ve not seen young toddlers getting into THC products quite like I’m seeing now,” Holstege said. “And a big part of it is the packaging we’re seeing.”

It’s not the first time experts have raised concerns with the broad array of THC products currently available in Virginia. While state lawmakers legalized the recreational use of marijuana in 2021, they’ve yet to permit retail sales. Critics say the lack of a legal marketplace has allowed unregulated and mislabeled products to flourish across the state.

Virginia’s latest two-year budget also legalized synthetic THC products like Delta-8 with a few stipulations. One provision in the spending plan bans edibles with packaging resembling protected trademarks or made in child-friendly shapes like animals, vehicles or fruit. Another directs state regulators to develop new labeling requirements specifying the total amount of THC in hemp-derived products. And Attorney General Jason Miyares has pledged to crack down on “copycat” edibles designed to look like popular snacks.

Virginia AG threatens crackdown on ‘copycat’ THC edibles

Currently, though, Virginia law doesn’t put a cap on the amount of lab-made THC permitted in retail products. Holstege said most hospitalizations have involved edibles with extremely high concentrations of the drug, including one case involving a five-year-old who ate an entire bag of THC “Skittles.”

“If you look at the package, it’s stated there’s an average 400 milligrams of THC per pack,” Holstege said. Further analysis uncovered that the product contained both Delta-8 and Delta-9, the primary intoxicating compound found in marijuana.

According to Holstege, other poison control centers in Virginia and across the nation have noted a similar rise in related calls. State officials appointed to the task force are examining potential new restrictions for synthetic THC, including limits on the type and concentration of cannabinoids allowed in retail products.

“Right now it seems like there’s labeling requirements, but it doesn’t really matter what is in that product,” Parker Slaybaugh, the state’s deputy secretary of agriculture and forestry, pointed out at Tuesday’s meeting. “As long as it’s labeled properly, it would be legal.”


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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md. She was named Virginia's outstanding young journalist for 2021 by the Virginia Press Association.