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Colorado parents are freaking out about marijuana in Halloween candy

These jack o lanterns are scary, but not as scary as poisoned candy.
These jack o lanterns are scary, but not as scary as poisoned candy.
Carlos Osorio / Toronto Star via Getty Images

The legalization of marijuana is going better than expected in Colorado, but there's a major hitch facing the state's burgeoning pot industry: marijuana edibles. And as Halloween approaches, parents and police are nervous that children will get ahold of cannabis candy.

On October 13, the Denver Police Department issued a warning to parents to watch out for any marijuana-laced goods in their kids' trick-or-treat bags. There's no evidence that people are planning to mix marijuana candy with real candy, but the warnings have left some parents worried.

In another controversy, Hershey sued TinctureBelle, a small marijuana edibles company based in Colorado, because the company's pot-laced goods allegedly imitated the famous chocolate company's products. On October 16, the Denver Post reported that Hershey and TinctureBelle had quietly reached a settlement in late September.

By themselves, the lawsuit and Halloween candy scares might not seem like a big deal. But they're the latest in a series of issues that have mired the marijuana edibles market since Colorado's retail sales began in January. As other states begin to push for legalization, eyes are on Colorado to see how the state manages to regulate the marketing and sales of these products.

What's wrong with how edibles are marketed?

marijuana candy hashey

This kind of labeling on marijuana candy is exactly what Hershey and parents are complaining about. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images News)

The Hershey lawsuit and Halloween scares touch on a major issue with marijuana edibles: how the products are marketed.

There are, of course, the trademark and branding concerns that Hershey is legitimately worried about. The Hashees, Ganja Joy, Hasheath, and Dabby Patty products look a lot like Hershey products Reese's, Almond Joy, Heath, and York peppermint candies.

But the bigger concern for legalization skeptics and critics is that these products imitate candies that are marketed to children. Critics worry that, even with the green stamp that marks marijuana products, younger children might not be able to tell the difference between a Ganja Joy and an Almond Joy.

Under current laws and regulations, there are strict limits to how products like tobacco and alcohol can be marketed. This is largely so that neither drug is marketed to children. Many people would like to see marijuana regulated as such.

There are some protections already in place for children. Ron Kammerzell, director of enforcement at the Colorado Department of Revenue, previously said the state enforces regulations that ensure packages are child-proof and child-resistant. In July, the state passed regulations making it easier to tell how much THC, the active ingredient of pot, is in edible products. The concern is whether the current regulations are or can ever be enough, leading some Colorado public health officials to briefly call for banning commercial marijuana edible products altogether.

What about Halloween candy?

On October 13, the Denver Police Department posted a video warning parents that some trick-or-treat candy could be laced with marijuana. Following the warning, CNN published a piece ringing the alarm about pot-infused Halloween candy.

But hospitals, police departments, and poison centers reported no cases of children accidentally eating marijuana-laced candies on Halloween.

There's a long history of this sort of thing. Every Halloween season, frantic reports of potentially poisoned candy circulate among parents and in schools, even though there's no evidence to back up the concerns.

LiveScience reported on why the fears are rooted in myth:

Researchers such as Joel Best of University of Delaware, who followed up on nearly 100 stories of candy contamination, have found that such claims almost always turn out to be tall tales, often told by the children themselves. Best published his results in "Threatened Children: Rhetoric and Concern About Child-Victims" (University of Chicago Press, 1993).

It really is a myth that, every October, "strangers are getting ready to poison the candy," said Aaron Carroll, a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University and co-author of "Don't Swallow Your Gum! Myths, Half-Truths, and Outright Lies about Your Body and Health" (St. Martin's Griffin, 2009). As for all the warnings, "they are, to some extent, fear-mongering," Carroll told LiveScience.

There has been exactly one documented case of a child being directly poisoned by Halloween candy, Carroll said. In 1974, an 8-year-old died after sucking on a Pixy Stix laced with cyanide. But the poisoner was not some mysterious Grim Reaper posing as a harmless neighbor. Nope, it was good ol' Dad.

In another case, a 5-year-old decided to try his uncle's heroin, and with no one around to give him pointers, he overdosed and died. The family then sprinkled heroin into the child's Halloween candy stash, in hopes of using the candy myth to cover their own negligence.

What about razor blades lurking within nougat? Pins in chocolate? Syringes?

Nope. Nope. And nope.

But the Cannabist's Brittany Driver argued there's some reason to be concerned with marijuana-laced candy in particular. "In many situations, it really is difficult to tell the difference between a treat and an infused treat," she wrote. "The Denver Police’s video includes side-by-side images of THC-infused candy next to the original candy they resemble to allow viewers to judge for themselves."

Marijuana edibles masked as kids candy can be avoided if parents, as the Denver Police recommended, check their children's candy for tampering. As Driver acknowledged, "The question that begs to be answered here is this, 'Do I need to worry about my kid getting pot-infused edibles from some psycho this Halloween?' I say, if you do your due diligence, the chances of that happening are minuscule to none."

If a child ends up consuming marijuana through Halloween candy or other means, it's very unlikely to result in serious health problems. The dangers of adolescent marijuana use are generally attributed to consistent, long-term use. One marijuana candy could lead to agitation, extreme sedation, or other minor health problems, but it likely won't lead to the terrifying health complications — and deaths — linked to deadly poisons.

Are there other concerns with marijuana edibles?

Maureen Dowd

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd on Meet the Press. (Alex Wong / Getty Images News)

The other big concern about edibles is that it's much easier to get high for them than other forms of consumption, such as smoking or vaping.

When marijuana is smoked or vaped, it works through the lungs and into the blood stream within a few minutes. When marijuana is eaten, it can take one to three hours for it to work through the stomach and into the blood stream.

A pot smoker just needs to wait a few minutes to realize if he's getting as stoned as he wants. To increase the dose, he can take a few puffs from a joint and wait a few minutes to see the full effects.

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Marijuana-laced products, some of which look awfully similar to non-marijuana foods. (Bob Berg / Getty Images News)

An edibles consumer, on the other hand, might notice the effects aren't kicking in as quickly as desired, try eating more, and end up eating way too much long before he even realizes he's high. By the time the effects kick in, the high could very well be overwhelming and downright uncomfortable.

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd reported her own bizarre experience with marijuana edibles in a column in June. After eating far too much marijuana, Dowd reported feeling like she was actually dead during the terrible trip. "It took all night before it began to wear off, distressingly slowly," she wrote. "The next day, a medical consultant at an edibles plant where I was conducting an interview mentioned that candy bars like that are supposed to be cut into 16 pieces for novices; but that recommendation hadn't been on the label."

The issue is further complicated with how edibles are made and packaged in Colorado. A serving is 10 milligrams of THC, the psychoactive substance in marijuana, and a product can have up to 10 servings, or 100 milligrams. (For reference, 10 milligrams of THC is around what one should expect in a typical joint.)

But eating 10 percent of a 100-milligram candy bar doesn't mean someone is getting 10 milligrams of THC. It's possible, for instance, that the marijuana is poorly dispersed throughout the candy bar, and the one-tenth eaten by a user might actually contain much more or less marijuana than expected.

So even if someone is patient and aware of the serving sizes, it can still be very tricky to manage how much THC is taken in. Even Steve Horwitz, edible aficionado and owner of Ganja Gourmet in Denver, previously said he's had some seriously bad trips after eating too much pot.

Have there been any major incidents involving edibles and children?

There have been a few tragedies involving marijuana edibles, although in many cases it's still a matter of dispute just how much marijuana played a role.

Children's Hospital Colorado reported a so-called surge in children ending up in emergency rooms after eating marijuana. The increase, however, represented a tiny patient population: from eight cases in all of 2013 to nine through May 2014.

marijuana edibles Colorado hospital

In these cases, none of the children ended up seriously injured. One had trouble breathing and needed a respirator, while others went into intensive care for extreme sedation and agitation.

To some extent, the blame should fall on parents who leave edibles within reach of children. "Marijuana should be treated as any other drug or medicine and kept out of reach of children," Melissa Vizcarra, spokesperson for Children's Hospital Colorado, wrote in an email.

What can be done about edibles?

There's general support, even among legalization advocates like the Marijuana Policy Project, for better labeling and packaging on edible products. In Colorado, regulators approved stronger rules earlier this year to make the amount of marijuana present in the goods clearer. As other states, like Washington, set up their own rules for medical and recreational marijuana, they're looking to Colorado's experience to see what they should do as well.

Some drug policy experts, such as Mark Kleiman of UCLA, suggested the concerns could eventually blow over. "It may be in the long run that eating it is safer," he said in September. The high "doesn't come on as fast. And once you have a legal option, you know how much you're taking."

To learn more about marijuana legalization, read Vox's card stack and breakdown of the states that could legalize pot this year.