Are People Really Trying to Drug Kids With Marijuana-Laced Halloween Candy?

While media outlets and law enforcement officials warn that pot-infused edibles could end up in kids' treat bags, evidence suggests there's no reason to worry.


Move over, razor blades and shards of glass. The latest menace to innocent trick-or-treaters, according to the Denver Police Department (DPD), is marijuana-infused candy passed off as unspiked versions of the same treats.

Last week the DPD posted a video in which Patrick Johnson, proprietor of Denver's Urban Dispensary, warns that "there's really no way to tell the difference between candy that's infused and candy that's not infused" once the products have been removed from their original packages. The video illustrates Johnson's point with images of innocuous-looking gummy bears and gumdrops. He advises parents to inspect their kids' Halloween haul and discard anything that looks unfamiliar or seems to have been tampered with.

Det. Aaron Kafer of the DPD's Marijuana Unit amplifies that message in an "Ask the Expert" podcast, saying "there's a ton of edible stuff that's out there on the market that's infused with marijuana that could be a big problem for your child." Noting that "all marijuana edibles have to be labeled," Kafer recommends that parents make sure their kids "avoid and not consume anything that is out of the package."

CNN turned these warnings into a widely carried story headlined "Tricks, Treats and THC Fears in Colorado." According to CNN, "Colorado parents have a new fear to factor in this Halloween: a very adult treat ending up in their kids' candy bags."

Actually, this fear is not so new. For years law enforcement officials have been warning parents to be on the lookout for marijuana edibles in their kids' trick-or-treat sacks. And for years, as far as I can tell, there has not been a single documented case in which someone has tried to get kids high by doling out THC-tainted treats disguised as ordinary candy. Since 1996, the year that California became the first state to legalize marijuana for medical use, the newspapers and wire services covered by the Nexis database have not carried any reports of such trickery, although they have carried more than a few articles in which people worry about the possibility.

After the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) raided a San Francisco manufacturer of marijuana edibles in September 2007, for instance, the agency claimed it was protecting children, especially the ones who dress up in costumes and go begging for candy on October 31. "Kids and parents need to be careful in case kids get ahold of this candy," said Javier Pena, special agent in charge of the DEA's San Francisco office. "Halloween is coming up." According to the Contra Costa Times, medical marijuana advocates "dismissed Pena's Halloween reference as an 'absurd' attempt at 'pure publicity.'"

A similar motive could be discerned three years later, when the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department "warned parents to be on the lookout for marijuana-laced candy, soda, freezer pops and other edibles that could be handed out on Halloween," as the City News Service put it. "You really can't tell the difference," said Capt. Ralph Ornelas of the department's Narcotics Bureau. "We felt obligated to share this information with the parents and the community." As critics noted, Ornelas felt obligated to share this information just four days before voters decided the fate of Proposition 19, a marijuana legalization initiative opposed by his boss, Sheriff Lee Baca.

State officials also have been known to use Halloween as an excuse to remind people that drugs are bad. In 2008 Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum warned that "federal and state law enforcement agencies have reported that flavored drugs, particularly methamphetamines, heroin and marijuana, are circulating throughout the United States and could be ingested by unsuspecting children." He advised parents to "check their children's candy for anything which may resemble one of these new drug forms." McCollum gets extra credit for mentioning candy-flavored meth, an apparently apocryphal threat that the DEA was never able to confirm.

Sometimes drug warriors play the Halloween card just because it's there. Last October, after campus police seized 40 pounds of marijuana-infused candy at West Chester State University in Pennsylvania, the Associated Press reported that Chester County Deputy District Attorney Patrick Carmody "says there's no indication students planned to distribute the candy to children for Halloween." Rather, "Authorities believe the candy was meant to be shared and sold among university students." Carmody still could not resist. "With Halloween just around the corner," he said, "the last thing we want to see is drug-laced candy hitting the streets."

Reporters do not necessarily need prodding from law enforcement officials to draw this connection, based purely on temporal coincidence. In October 2012, Buffalo police raided a college party and seized 640 pot-infused lollipops that had been shipped from California. Here is how the A.P. story began: "Just in time for Halloween…"

A year later, KYTV, the NBC station in Springfield, Missouri, reported that police had intercepted a package of cannabis candy mailed from Colorado to Joplin. "Halloween is just around the corner," KYTV noted, adding that "the sheriff wants everyone to know that candy like these lemon drops are being circulated throughout the area, a safety concern for kids." To ratchet up that fear, the station quoted a random mother of three. "I hope it was never intended to give to kids or to harm children," she said, "but it is scary, especially with Halloween coming up, that they might be in contact with something like that, so it's frightening."

The prospect of seemingly friendly folks slipping your kids cannabis candy on Halloween is a bit less frightening when you realize how little evidence there is that anyone wants to do that. With marijuana edibles selling for much more than the regular candy you can get by the bagful at Walmart, it would be a pretty pricey prank. So far it does not seem that anyone has been tempted to play it. Dispensaries have been selling marijuana edibles for years in Colorado, where medical use of cannabis has been legal since 2001. Yet Michael Elliott, executive director of Colorado's Marijuana Industry Group, says he is not aware of any incidents where edibles have been surreptitiously distributed to trick-or-treaters in that state or any of the 22 others that allow medical use.

"We don't have any cases of it," confirms Ron Hackett, a spokesman for the Denver Police Department. Nor does he know of any such cases in other jurisdictions. "This is our first year with [recreational] edibles, and we just kind of wanted to put it out there as a reminder," Hackett says. "It's just something that we really wanted to get out there and get ahead of, because kids will eat anything."

A blogger at Ladybud, a "women's lifestyle publication with a focus on activism specific to Drug War reform and other socially progressive issues," detects a more sinister agenda. "This is just another way for those who most benefit from marijuana prohibition to try to convince the public that prohibition protects children," she writes. "The real message here is that the average citizen should be wary of cannabis users; they might want to drug your kids and get them 'hooked' too."

She has a point, although one should not discount the perennial appeal of urban legends about children in peril, especially the sort of unconfirmed yet scary tales that led many parents to anxiously examine their kids' Halloween treats long before marijuana edibles were openly sold in stores. If you worry that malicious strangers are sticking needles into chocolate bars or dosing caramel apples with poison, you probably will also worry that they are passing off expensive marijuana edibles as dime store candy—just for kicks.

There is a cost to such bogeyman stories, and it goes beyond needlessly discarded candy. These rumors portray the world as a darker, more dangerous place than it really is, which is probably not conducive to a happy childhood or a successful adulthood. At the same time, the credence that public officials lend to such fanciful fears makes any reasonably skeptical person doubt other warnings from the same authorities, an unfortunate result when those warnings happen to be accurate and useful. I assume that happens from time to time, although no examples spring to mind.

This article originally appeared at Forbes.com.