A new study found kids consuming cannabis at astronomical rates — because the packaging looks so yummy
A new study found that children are consuming cannabis-infused products at astronomical rates.
The packaging often resembles something familiar or enticing, like candy or chips.
"A 3-year-old who sees a chocolate bar is very motivated to get to it," a poison control expert said.
What do Doritos, Nerds, Fritos, and Haribo gummy bears have in common?
They're all popular snacks consumed by millions in the US — and they each have cannabis-infused lookalikes on the market.
While these products are intended to be sold to and consumed by adults in the United States, they're making their way into the hands of a much younger audience.
Children under the age of 6 are consuming cannabis at astronomical rates, according to a study published Tuesday by three emergency specialists in Illinois. From 2017 to 2021, the researchers found, reports of cannabis exposure in young children increased by 1,375%. The researchers analyzed data collected by America's Poison Centers, a nonprofit that represents 55 poison control centers in the US.
While the study focused on children younger than 6, older kids are also consuming cannabis-infused products.
In May, six elementary school students in California were hospitalized after eating Cannabis-laced Cheetos. In September, middle-schoolers in Georgia passed around "edible gummy bears" that some parents fear might have contained THC. And in November, six middle-school students in Missouri got sick after eating marijuana edibles passed around in class.
"It's definitely something that they just get into by accident, and the fact that they're intentionally marketed to look like tasty candies is definitely a problem," said Antonia Nemanich, one of the study's authors.
At first glance, it can be hard to tell the difference between a recreational cannabis product and a regular snack.
Laws on cannabis packaging vary from state to state, according to Chris Wood, a California-based lawyer who specializes in corporate, transactional, and tax work for the cannabis industry. But generally, there are a series of items that must be visible on the outside of a package carrying a cannabis-infused product. They include:
Universal symbols that indicate the presence of cannabis
A prominent government warning specifying the legal age and possible effects of consumption
How many servings are included in the package
Images indicating what a serving looks like
But because laws vary — and because the industry is growing so quickly that it's escaping regulation — not every package will include all these labels.
In New York City, unlicensed weed shops boomed after the state legalized cannabis in 2021.
One store in Washington Square Park sells Doritos and Fritos infused with 500 to 600 milligrams of THC. Aside from labels specifying the amount and various warnings and other design minutiae, the packaging looks nearly identical to non-THC chips.
"If you're an adult who's not looking very closely or maybe does not have a high level of literacy looking at that label, you might miss it," said Diane Calello, executive and medical director of the New Jersey Poison Control Center at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.
Copycat products are not legal in some states, Wood said. California law, for example, forbids anything that resembles or can be confused with a commercially available, non-cannabis product.
But products are still sold across state lines on the black market, he said. Lookalike products are almost always produced by unlicensed manufacturers.
Some manufacturers, like Pennsylvania-based Hippy Mood, incorporate child safety locks on their products to prevent child access. The packaging for Hippy Mood products is designed not to entice kids, according to co-owner Amy Romejko.
"We don't put anything [on the packaging] that it mimics candies, like children's candies, or anything like that," Romejko said.
The study found that 97% of the exposures between 2017 and 2021 occurred in residential settings, meaning children often got into a parent or guardian's stash.
"It's important that parents lock these up, put them in places that are inaccessible to children," Nemanich said. "But then if they were to mess up and say, leave it out on the counter, the way that they're packaged right now, it's something that if a kid even just sees it, I think it's inevitable."
Parents should also make sure to keep an eye on children while they're near a stash of cannabis-infused products.
"Remember the kids sometimes climb on chairs to get into cabinets," said Calello of the New Jersey Poison Control Center. "A 3-year-old who sees a chocolate bar is very motivated to get to it."
Adults should immediately contact poison control if they suspect a child has accidentally consumed a cannabis-infused product.
Symptoms for children who consume cannabis can vary widely, depending on their age, weight, and dose.
Michele Caliva, administrative director of the Upstate New York Poison Center, told Insider she's seen cases in which children who've consumed cannabis are in an "altered state." They could be drowsy, acting scared, or paranoid. In some cases, she said, children have been monitored for 12-24 hours in the hospital.
Other times, the effects might be more severe. Children might experience hallucinations or have seizures, Calello said.
In some cases, children might end up on a ventilator because they're unable to breathe, according to Kaitlyn Brown, clinical managing director at America's Poison Centers.
"That is a really rare portion of children, but I think it's important to highlight that those severe complications have been reported just because cannabis is considered to be really safe by a lot of adult users and experienced users, but we're definitely seeing how differently toxic doses impact children just because they're able to ingest larger quantities of these cannabis products," Brown said.
Normally, pediatric poisoning is something kids grow out of, Calello said. But it's different with cannabis edibles because they can look like candy.
"A 9- and 10-year-old is very interested in eating candy whether they know it contains cannabis or not," she said.
And cannabis-infused products may not be the only concern. Doctors and poison control experts said magic mushrooms, which are sometimes packed in chocolate, could be next.
"It's something on our radar for sure," said Brown of America's Poison Centers.
If you believe you have been exposed or need emergency assistance please call Poison Help at 1.800.222.1222 or visit PoisonHelp.org for additional resources and support.
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