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Updated 21 March 2015

How dagga likely affected the toddler whose brother forced her to smoke

A three-year-old toddler allegedly forced to smoke dagga by an older brother has been placed in safe care, but has any damage been done?

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When the Western Cape Social Development Department became aware of pictures posted on social media showing how a teenager coerced his younger sister to smoke dagga (marijuana), they took immediate action by temporarily placing the three-year-old girl in safe care with family friends.

Social Development MEC Albert Fritz said "Our social workers from the metro south regional office were immediately activated and launched an investigation to try to track the whereabouts of the toddler, made difficult given the lack of information and an address."

He said social workers found the girl's location on Wednesday and approached the child's mother to intervene.

The department was probing the matter as well as working with police to track down the teenager, who is believed to be involved in a gang, the notorious 26s

How does dagga affect a young child? 

Not much research has been done into how dagga (aka pot, weed and marijuana) affects a young child's brain, but since medical marijuana was legalised in Colorado in the USA, more than a dozen young children have been unintentionally poisoned with the drug.

"We are seeing increases in exposure to marijuana in young pediatric patients, and they have more severe symptoms than we typically associate with marijuana," says Dr. George Sam Wang, a medical toxicology fellow at the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center in Denver.

But doctors aren't familiar with marijuana poisoning in children, so unless the parents are forthcoming it can take time and tests to diagnose the problem, Wang said. Symptoms of marijuana poisoning in children include sleepiness and balance problems while walking.

As with many similar poisonings, treatment is limited to supportive care and waiting until the marijuana clears the system, he said.

Children recover quickly in most cases, Wang said. "They don't need more than a day or two of hospitalisation," he said. "There were no deaths or lasting side effects."

In the June 26 2013 issue of the  Journal of the American Medical Association researchers found that children who drank alcohol or smoked dagga at least occasionally had three to five times the concussion risk of their peers who were drug- and alcohol-free.

Other studies have linked ongoing recreational marijuana use in kids with ill effects on health and brain development, including problems with memory, concentration, attention, judgment and reaction time, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Also, the drug can impair motor control, coordination and judgment, leading to an increased risk of accidental injury and death.

How prevalent is drug and alcohol use among our youth?

As part of a Schools Community Engagement research project, the Youth Research Unit (YRU) of the Bureau of Market Research (BMR) in the College of Economic and Management Sciences at Unisa conducted a study in 2012 investigating the extent and effect of drug and alcohol use among secondary school learners.

A total of 4 346 learners, in grades 8 to 12, from randomly selected secondary schools in Gauteng, participated in the research study.

Almost three in every 10 learners (26.9%) who participated in the YRU study confirmed that they are using illicit drugs, of which dagga remains the most popular (95.4%), most 8 in every 10 learners (79.4%) regularly consume alcohol of which the majority (66.6%) have been drunk and almost half (44.8%) had engaged in ‘binge drinking’.

According to Basson, peer pressure and the desire to be socially accepted play a significant role in alcohol consumption among the youth. The YRU study shows that cigarette smoking and hubbly bubblies are becoming more and more popular among secondary school learners, especially among girls. Hubbly bubblies are often part of entertainment and not associated with the negative consequences of smoking tobacco products.

Despite a high level of awareness of the risks and consequences associated with drug and alcohol abuse, the study shows that learners continue using these substances for stress relieve and recreational purposes.

The bottom line?

With the lack of scientific evidence in the effects of marijuana on small children's health, it is difficult to say if any damage has been done. It is also not clear if this was a once-off incident, or if it had been ongoing. The larger problem could, at this point, be with the youngsters own abuse of the drug and why he felt the need to share it with his young sibling in the first place. 

Read more:

When is it OK to give children medicinal marijuana?
Dagga use affects your brain chemistry
Heavy dagga use 'shrinks' teen brains

Image: dagga joint, from Shutterstock

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