Undeterred by Pushback, Cops and Journalists Are Still Warning Parents About THC-Laced Halloween Candy

The unsubstantiated threat that strangers with cannabis candy allegedly pose to trick-or-treaters is an urban legend that never dies.


Police are not saying that monsters will definitely try to devour your children on Halloween. They are merely saying it is prudent to check the closet and look under the bed, just in case.

That is the logic of the warnings about marijuana edibles that law enforcement agencies reflexively issue this time of year: Even though it is highly implausible that strangers with candy would try to intoxicate costumed kids by replacing dime store snacks with pricey THC-laced treats, and even though there has never been a documented case of that actually happening, it is still possible. So when you inspect your children's trick-or-treat haul for other hypothetical hazards—as every responsible parent supposedly does—you should also be on the lookout for cannabis candy. And while you're at it, don't forget about the equally mythical threat that "rainbow fentanyl" poses to trick-or-treaters.

Pushback against such false alarms has become increasingly common in recent years. But judging from the latest round of official warnings about Halloween candy that might pack more than a sugar high, many police officials remain undeterred. That is probably at least partly because many local journalists are either credulous or click-hungry enough to amplify these purported public service messages.

"Nevada State Police issued a stern warning after marijuana edibles were found in Halloween candy in northern Nevada," KRNV, the NBC affiliate in Reno, reported yesterday. Contrary to that framing, the candy in question was not Halloween-specific, and there is no indication that anyone planned to distribute it to children.

According to the "Halloween PSA" that the Nevada State Police Highway Patrol posted on Facebook, "Troopers in the north have encountered candy containing controlled substances. As you can see from the photos, many of the packages aren't easily discernable [sic] at first glance. Parents of 'trick or treaters' while collecting your candy tax, please take the time to inspect your children's bounty."

In other words: Marijuana edibles exist, just like razor blades, needles, shards of glass, and poison exist. Although there is no reason to think any of those are apt to end up in spooky sacks or plastic pumpkin pails, you never know.

A report from KFOX, a Sinclair-owned TV station in El Paso, Texas, begins by downplaying this purported threat, then proceeds to hype it. Here are the first two sentences:

El Paso police issued a warning Tuesday, stating [it] is not to alarm the public, but to raise awareness and extra precautionary measures for Halloween.

The[y] added that there is no indication of a specific threat to the El Paso area.

But those caveats are immediately followed by this (emphasis added): "Police officials stated drugs are being packaged for distribution in resealed bags of legitimate well-known brands of candy in other states." If that is the nature of the threat, how can parents ever be sure that seemingly "legitimate" candy does not contain THC, unless they have drug testing equipment and are willing to analyze the contents of every package? Best to throw it all out, or keep your kids from collecting candy to begin with.

KFOX also notes that in New Mexico, which legalized recreational cannabis last year, "marijuana and THC is [sic] sold as edibles in the form of candies or other snacks." Unlike "resealed bags of legitimate well-known brands," those packages carry clear warnings of their psychoactive content. So do the packages shown in the El Paso Police Department photograph that accompanies the KFOX story. The station nevertheless warns that the edibles sold by licensed pot shops across the border "may appeal to children and could be mistaken for real candy due to the packaging resembling famous brands."

WPRI, the CBS affiliate in Providence, Rhode Island, likewise warns that "police in Glocester and Pawtucket have seized marijuana edibles packaged to look like common snacks." It concedes that "upon closer inspection, the packaging indicated the products were made with THC."

Pawtucket Police Chief Tina Goncalves is unfazed by that fact. "Although they were marked as edibles, it's still concerning that a young child is not going to recognize those markings," she told WPRI. "They were marked as normal household snacks that young kids would gravitate towards. This was the first time we had come across them, but obviously, if it's the first time we've come across them, then obviously they are out there."

No one is disputing that such products "are out there," or that "a young child" might not recognize the warnings on the packages, just as he or she might not read and understand the warnings on a bottle of liquor. But in the context of trick-or-treating, those points are relevant only if you assume that adults are giving kids cannabis products. Are they?

Never mind that, KPRI says: "With Halloween coming up, police want to make families aware to watch what their kids are eating by taking a good look at the contents of their trick-or-treat bags." That's "not to say that it's going to be passed out during Halloween," Goncalves adds, "but it's just to be better off safe than sorry."

Buchanan County, Missouri, Sheriff Bill Puett, by contrast, is not shy about suggesting that malicious pranksters might indeed try to get your kids high on Halloween, although that would be an expensive trick with no obvious payoff even for sadists, since the effects would not be apparent until hours later, if ever. "Unfortunately, there are a lot of people out there who do things to purposely harm children," Puett told the St. Joseph News-Press. The paper notes that "law enforcement agencies are asking parents to check every piece of candy their child receives as drug-infused items can be substituted for similar-looking treats."

Puett worries that "people are very creative nowadays, so marijuana edibles can easily be mistaken for regular candy." He explains that "it's the bright and colorful packaging that appeals to kids." Parents therefore should "examine all candy and packages to make sure they haven't been tampered with."

Puett thus conflates three different scenarios. One involves a child who happens to come across marijuana edibles—exactly how isn't clear—and mistakes them for "regular candy." The other two scenarios involve people who "do things to purposely harm children." In one hypothetical, those people are giving out marijuana edibles marked as such, which vigilant parents can discover before it's too late. But in the other imaginary situation, candy has been "tampered with," possibly in ways that are difficult to detect. As with the "resealed bags of legitimate well-known brands" that KFOX vaguely mentions, the only safe course seems to be forgoing trick-or-treating altogether.

As usual, what is lacking from all of these stories is any verified report that anyone has ever attempted this trick. The closest thing to that in recent press coverage is a report from a Missouri mother who said she found "cannabis gummy worms" in the candy that her 5-year-old son collected during a "trunk or treat Halloween event" at JJ's Restaurant in St. Charles on October 8. The package was conspicuously marked as containing delta-8 THC, a hemp-derived variation on marijuana's main psychoactive ingredient.

KMOV, the CBS affiliate in St. Louis, reports that the restaurant's alarmed owners "walked through the lot" and "looked through everyone's candy" but found no additional examples. "We don't believe at this time there was malicious intent," Lt. Tom Wilkison of the St. Charles Police Department told KMOV. Wilkison surmised that "somehow these gummy worms got mixed in with candy because they do look like candy." Erring on the side of caution, the department nevertheless issued a "safety alert" to parents who attended the event.

"Officers went to the car show and could not locate anyone passing out any Delta 8 gummy worms," a department spokesperson told Insider. "We believe the gummy worms were somehow mixed in with a container of candy someone was passing out. This report has been isolated to this single incident, which leads us to believe there was no malicious intent and [it] was accidental….We are trying to determine how it occurred."

Insider quotes "skeptical locals" who see the police warning as part of an effort to  undermine support for a marijuana legalization measure that will be on Missouri's ballot next month. "Nothing about this story adds up," says a local photographer, who calls it a "typical scare tactic used around Halloween."

Insider also quotes University of Delaware sociologist Joel Best, the go-to source for debunking Halloween-related scares and other urban legends. "I can't find any evidence that any child has been killed or seriously hurt by a contaminated treat picked up in the course of trick-or-treating," Best says. In the Missouri case, he concedes, "it's a possibility that somehow a gummy [worm] of the wrong variety got mixed in with the candy." Assuming that is what happened, of course, it still would not count as verification of warnings that sadistic adults are trying to get trick-or-treaters stoned.

Five days before Halloween last year, New York Attorney General Letitia James issued a "consumer alert" urging parents to "remain vigilant" for "products that are deceptively designed to look like standard snack foods and candy, but actually contain high levels of cannabis and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)." She warned that such products "can be extremely dangerous to human health," which is why "it is essential that we limit their access to protect our communities and, more specifically, our children."

The alert included photos of representative products, all of which were labeled as marijuana edibles. James asked New Yorkers to "report these harmful items to my office immediately," offering them an online complaint form and a toll-free hotline number for that purpose.

Reporters at WGRZ, the NBC affiliate in Buffalo, wondered what evidence James might have collected to support her fears. They "reached out to the AG's office on November 5 and November 10 to ask about any reports of deceptive cannabis packaging." Receiving no response, the station "filed a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request in January." Last May, "after multiple delays," James' office finally "provided the information." It had received just one complaint, from a woman who said "a medical marijuana dispensary sold her stale or spoiled medical marijuana."