With Halloween just around the corner, it's time for scary news reports that begin, "With Halloween just around the corner…" This genre of yellow journalism often features warnings about tainted trick-or-treat candy, a mythical menace that in recent years has gained credibility thanks to the popularity of marijuana edibles in states where such products are legal.
Last year police in Denver, where state-licensed marijuana merchants had recently begun serving recreational consumers, told parents to be on the lookout for THC-tainted treats in their children's candy bags. As usual, no actual cases of such surreptitious dosing were identified.
But fear of strangers with candy springs eternal. The fact that this threat so far has proven imaginary is not deterring reporters and law enforcement officials around the country from warning parents that harmless-looking treats might contain a mind-altering substance other than sugar—if not marijuana, then MDMA.
Often the pretext for such reports is a drug seizure that occurs within a month or so of Halloween, even if there's no evidence of a connection to the holiday. Last month KTRK, the ABC station in Houston, reported that "a recent pot bust has authorities issuing a warning for parents, as Halloween approaches," because local drug agents had "learned that marijuana made into candy was being shipped across state lines." A few days later, after Orangeburg County, South Carolina, deputies found "several bags of marijuana-infused candy" in a local motel room, Sheriff Leroy Ravenell said "we need to pay close attention to the candy our children are in contact with and are consuming." Summarizing that report (which appeared on WLTX, the CBS station in Columbia), USA Today added the lead, "Just in time for Halloween…"
Similarly, The Florida Times Union warned on October 14 that "Atlantic Beach parents may have another thing to worry about as Halloween trick-or-treating looms—candy infused with marijuana, as discovered following the recent arrest of a 33-year-old man with bags of it." Last week, after students at Miller High School in Miller, Missouri, were caught with THC-treated Skittles, Superintendent Dustin Storm also thought of Halloween, telling parents, "With Halloween coming up, it's very important to be observant."
In other cases, warnings about marijuana-infused Halloween candy are not tied to any particular event; they are just part of the standard advice issued to parents in October. On October 15, citing the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center, the Arizona Daily Star said parents of treat-or-treaters should "be on the lookout for any edible marijuana treats." Last week several Nebraska newspapers regurgitated a warning from the Nebraska Poison Control Center saying marijuana edibles that "resemble traditional candies" are "another good reason to check all your children's candy when they get home." Similarly, WITN, the NBC station in Greenville, North Carolina, warned viewers that "tricky packaging could land marijuana edibles in the hands of trick-or-treaters this Halloween." KTHV, the ABC station in Little Rock, Arkansas, reported that "police want parents to pay extra attention to the Halloween candy their kids collect this year, now that marijuana edibles are in circulation."
Reporters in Colorado have been a bit more cautious, presumably because they remember last year's false alarm about edibles sold by marijuana merchants in that state. Last Friday The Denver Post noted that "the initial concern last year over marijuana edibles ending up in Halloween candy never came to pass." KOAA, the NBC station in Colorado Springs, likewise conceded that authorities "have not seen a spike of accidental [marijuana] ingestion at Halloween." Still, you never know. "One of the big things with cannabis-containing candies, it does have a distinct smell," a local doctor told the station, saying parents should be "making sure you're looking at everything and making sure the packaging looks legitimate."
Almost all of these stories make a leap from the observation that cannabis candy exists to the completely unsubstantiated fear that someone might slip it into your kid's trick-or-treat bag. That scenario is highly implausible, since it is hard to see what the payoff would be for replacing cheap Halloween treats with expensive marijuana edibles. Given the delay between eating cannabis candy and feeling its effects, the hypothetical prankster could not even hope to witness the consequences of his trick. Furthermore, it seems that nothing like this has ever happened—or if it did, it somehow escaped the attention of the yellow journalists who keep warning us about the possibility. The story is kept alive by the gullibility of the same parents who anxiously examine their kid's Halloween candy for needles and shards of glass.
This year saw the birth of a new variation on this theme: Instead of cannabis in your kids' candy, maybe there's MDMA. Snopes.com, the online catalog of urban legends, traces the scare to a September 25 post by a Facebook user named Thomas Chizzo Bagwell featuring a photo of colorful Molly tablets. "If your kids get these for halloween," Bagwell wrote, "it's not candy." Last week the Jackson, Mississippi, police department posted the same photo, accompanied by this warning:
If your kids get these for Halloween candy, they ARE NOT CANDY!!! They are the new shapes of "Ecstasy" and can kill kids through overdoses!!! So, check your kid's candy and "When in doubt, Throw it out!!!" Be safe and always keep the shiny side up!!!
That burst of fact-free fear, which was later removed from the police department's Facebook page, transformed idle speculation into "an alert" issued by "police nationwide," as WILX, the NBC station in Lansing, Michigan, put it. WOIO, the CBS station in Cleveland, claimed "Ecstasy masked to look like candy" is "popping up all over the country, and police want to warn you." If a child were to eat one of those tablets, according to Westlake, Ohio, Police Capt. Guy Turner, "they would be in the emergency room without a doubt."
Why does Turner think that scenario is plausible? "Look at the colors," he told WOIO. "They're very similar to, like, Sweet Tarts or Sprees or Smarties. These people, they just piggyback off legitimate stuff."
Snopes.com writer Kim LaCapria notes that candy-colored MDMA tablets have been around for years. "As is often the case with such rumors," she writes, "the public seemed to conflate the existence of a drug that looked child-friendly…with deliberate manufacture of those substances with an intent to attract children. Prior to its September 2015 circulation on social media as a cautionary tale, the photograph of Ecstasy used here appeared primarily on blogs discussing (presumably adult) recreational drug use."
One widely carried TV report, credited to NBC, said "just one of those candy pills would cost about $10," which suggests "it's rare that it would pop up in your child's trick-or-treat bag." Still, "police do want you to be aware." In other words, there is no evidence that anyone has ever contemplated giving trick-or-treaters MDMA tablets, let alone actually done it, but you should worry about it anyway.
Child poisoners disguised as friendly neighbors seem to be the adult equivalent of witches, ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and zombies. As one randomly selected mother told WOIO, "It's really scary that there are people out there who want to hurt kids on Halloween." And who doesn't love a good scare this time of year?
[This post originally appeared at Forbes.com.]