The Montreal Children's Hospital is sounding the alarm about cannabis intoxication among young children.

Since the drug was legalized, doctors have seen a spike in the number of emergency cases -- and about a quarter of the children were under the age of seven.

“Since legalization in October, we have had 26 cases, and in the under seven age group over the last little while, we've had nine cases – which has gone from one every three to four years to nine over a very short period of time. So this is certainly is alarming to us,” said Debbie Friedman, trauma director at the Montreal Children's Hospital.

Commercial brands of edible cannabis are still illegal in Canada but are readily accessible, for example, online. Cannabis buyers are also allowed to turn their own legally bought cannabis into food products if they choose.

Though cannabis consumption is legal for adults, that isn’t safe for children, said Friedman.

“It doesn't mean it should just be left around where it's easily accessible to a child who's curious or attracted to the colour of gummy bears or a chocolate bar or hash brownies, because they can't distinguish between what's cannabis and what's not,” she said.

In all cases, parents told the doctors their children had gotten into it by accident.

“They tell us, you know, ‘We had brownies in the fridge, the kids have access to the fridge, he ate some, we became concerned, he became symptomatic, we brought him in.’ So parents shouldn't be afraid to get medical attention,” said ER physician and toxicologist Dr. Dominic Chalut, adding that parents shouldn’t avoid treatment out of fear for legal consequences.

“We're not there to call [youth protection] on all cases. It's like all ingestion, accidents can happen.”

Young children, in particular, are more affected because of their size.

“The patients we've seen presented with some dizziness, vomiting. They can also fluctuate from a state of agitation to lethargy. They're not breathing enough, they need assistance, we pinch them, they don't respond to pain and two cases where they presented with seizures,” said Chalut.

Those two children had to be intubated and admitted to the intensive care unit.

Common symptoms include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Drowsiness or excessive sleepiness
  • Slurred speech
  • Anxiety, restlessness, changes in mood or behaviour
  • Difficulty walking or sitting up
  • Loss of balance or coordination

All doctors can do is treat the symptoms of the cannabis poisoning and wait for the effects to wear off. There is no cannabis antidote.

Experts are reminding parents that anything that is used in the house by adults needs to be safely locked away and out of reach.

If children do get into the cannabis by accident, parents need to seek medical help immediately.

Friedman said people need to change their habits to prevent accidents.

“We've got to adjust to this new reality. Whether it needs to have safety caps or safety locks that can't be opened by children, whether it needs to be stored in areas that aren’t accessible and that they're very prudent if they're having friends over and they're using these products that they're not left around.”

Safe use of cannabis around children:

  • Clean up all cannabis products after use
  • Keep cannabis in child-resistant packaging
  • Store cannabis products in a safe and locked location, far out of reach of children
  • Tell guests who have cannabis to keep their products away from children
  • Teach your children about medicine safety -- what medicine is and why adults should be the only ones handling it
  • Do not smoke where children are present

Quebec's Deputy Health Minister Lionel Carmant said in a statement that he’s “greatly concerned” about the increase in juvenile intoxication of cannabis edibles.

"We must remain vigilant vis-à-vis comestible products that contain mind-altering products such as cannabis edibles. It is clear to me that the risk of collateral intoxication is and will remain high. I call on all parents to exercise caution with these products," the statement read.

It's expected the federal government will legalize edible cannabis products this fall.