The kids are not all right — copycat cannabis edibles risk their safety

Associated Press/Richard Vogel
In this Oct. 20, 2018 photo medicated High Chew edibles are shown on display and offered for sale at the cannabis-themed Kushstock Festival at Adelanto, Calif.

Copycat cannabis edibles, which have colorful packages that mimic popular snacks and candy, have come under scrutiny. Media coverage reveals an apparent rising trend of accidental ingestion by children that has led to severe symptoms, in some cases requiring hospitalization. We need a multi-pronged approach to keep copycat edible cannabis packaging from the market and out of the hands of children.

In our recent study, we found that packaging for 8 percent of 267 edibles closely resembled 13 snack products popular among children, including Sour Patch Kids and Nerds Rope candies and Doritos chips. Although copycat cannabis products were a minority in the packages analyzed in this study, these copycat edibles tended to claim to have levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) — the main psychoactive chemical in cannabis — that far exceed the limits set by state cannabis regulations, raising the dangers of serious harms to children if accidentally ingested.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently issued a public health warning to consumers about accidental ingestion by children of food products containing THC. Between January 2021 and April 24, 2022, the FDA received 100 adverse event reports related to children and adults who consumed edible products containing THC. Seven of these reports described accidental ingestion of copycat cannabis products resembling popular brands of children’s candy, including Cocoa Pebbles, Nerds Rope, Skittles, Sour Patch Kids and Starburst. The 2020 Annual Report of the American Association of Poison Control Centers’ National Poison Data System reported more than 3,000 exposures to edible cannabis products involving children ages 12 and younger, with most of these occurring among children 5 and younger.

Major food companies including PepsiCo, General Mills and Kellogg’s recently urged U.S. senators and members of Congress in a joint letter to broaden language in the SHOP SAFE Act aimed at deterring online retailers from using a “famous or counterfeit” mark in the advertising, sale and distribution of copycat cannabis products. The rationale for this action, they said, is “a gap in existing law — the widespread online sale of packaging that leverages these famous brands.”

The truth is, this is much more than an issue about copyright infringement law, and large food corporations are not the main victims here. Copycat edibles packaging poses a significant threat to public health and safety among children who are too young to distinguish the difference between a package of a familiar snack and that of cannabis edibles. Relying on food brands to take legal action against cannabis companies for copyright infringement will not stop copycat products from appearing in the market. This is akin to a Whac-A-Mole game because they are quickly replaced by unregulated sellers and the availability of empty copycat product packages sold online. 

Instead, we need a coordinated policy and public education approach at local, state and national levels to make an impact in protecting children from accidentally ingesting copycat edibles.

First, we urgently need policies to require plain packaging of all cannabis products. Research following Canada’s legalizing of non-medical cannabis nationally indicates that plain packaging, without brand logos but with health warnings added, reduces the appeal of products to youths.

Second, funding from legalized cannabis tax revenues should be utilized to support public education campaigns, pediatricians and primary care providers to inform parents to keep children safe from edible products. Parents and caregivers should avoid having these products at home. If they do bring such products home, they should avoid purchasing edibles in packaging that resembles children’s candy and store all cannabis products in locations separate from regular food items that are out of reach of their children. They also should not use edibles in view of children, which could increase kids’ curiosity and modeling.

Third, training and education programs for cannabis product producers, dispensary owners, managers, staff and independent sellers, as well as packaging manufacturers, should address edible packing specifically. These programs should cover best practices for safe packaging of cannabis products, cannabis packaging regulations, and patient/customer education.

To be clear, we are not calling for restricting the sale of legalized cannabis edibles in states that have legalized medical and adult use of cannabis products. We believe that responsible adult use of cannabis products can and should be compatible with preventing children from accidental ingestion and harms by taking specific actions. Children’s safety is an important priority, and it depends on our collective action.

Danielle C. Ompad, Ph.D., is a professor of epidemiology at the New York University School of Global Health and deputy director of the Center for Drug Use and HIV|HCV Research (CDUHR) at the New York University. Her study of cannabis packaging was funded by CDUHR, which is funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Andy Tan, Ph.D., MBBS, MPH, MBA, is an associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and senior fellow at the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics at the University of Pennsylvania. He directs the Health Communication Equity Lab and is a collaborator on the cannabis packaging study.

Tags children's health edible cannabis FDA warning medical marijuana

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