Cops and Reporters Are Still Hyping the Halloween Threat Posed by Strangers With Cannabis Candy

A 2022 Canadian case involving what looks like a stoned mistake seems to be the closest real-world example of this purported danger.


It's October, which means it is time for alarmist cops and credulous reporters to start warning parents about the purported menace of cannabis edibles in trick-or-treat bags. KSNT, the NBC affiliate in Topeka, Kansas, got a jump on that annual rite last month, when it amplified a "community advisory" from the St. Mary's Police Department about "THC-infused gummies and snacks marketed to children ahead of the holidays."

That framing is misleading in at least two ways. First, it assumes that producers of marijuana edibles that resemble popular candy brands are targeting children, who cannot legally buy such products even in states where adults can, as opposed to nostalgic grownups with a sweet tooth. Second, it implies that nefarious adults are apt to distribute THC treats on Halloween, requiring extra vigilance by parents who already worry about the danger allegedly posed by needles, glass shards, or poison that might be lurking in their kids' candy hauls.

The KSNT story features a photograph of cannabis candy made in California, where medical marijuana was legalized in 1996, followed by recreational marijuana in 2016. At a glance, the package looks a lot like cherry-flavored Airheads Xtremes, a blatant trademark violation that surely is cause for concern at Perfetti Van Melle, which makes the genuine article. But the package carries several clues that the product is not intended for children. The front includes a "medicated candy" descriptor, along with a state-mandated cannabis label and a statement of THC content. A label on the back warns: "Contains Cannabis, A Schedule I Controlled Substance. Keep out of Reach of Children."

KSNT nevertheless describes the product as "disguised THC candies." Citing police, it says "the THC edibles are very dangerous in the hands of children and are disguised as popular brands such as Air Heads, Fruit Gushers, Sour Skittles, Sour Patch Kids, Buzzy Peaches and Cherry Blasters." The implication is that the manufacturers want to trick kids into getting high, although it's not clear why that would be a sensible business strategy. And while the reference to "the holidays" implies that the risk of dangerous confusion is especially acute around Halloween, the article cites no evidence to support that premise.

That's par for the course with Halloween-related warnings about cannabis edibles, which police departments and news outlets have been issuing for many years despite a dearth of actual incidents involving malicious distribution of such products to children. "Doctors are warning about the risks of dangerous drugs being mistaken for candy," WLS, the ABC affiliate in Chicago, reported last year. "Those incidents increase around Halloween, especially now with some drugs looking more and more like colorful treats."

In addition to "marijuana edibles," that article mentioned "rainbow fentanyl," colorful opioid tablets that, like "medicated" Airheads, are frequently portrayed, even less plausibly, as deliberately designed to entice children. "Rainbow fentanyl, pot gummies or other colorful pills could all be mistaken for normal candy by children or people unfamiliar with them," WLS warned. "If children get their hands on them during the trick or treat season they can be deadly, so parents should be on guard."

WLS was vague about exactly how children might "get their hands on them." Although it alluded to perennial fears of sadistic pranks by adults who surreptitiously pass off drugs as candy on Halloween, the expert it quoted—Steven Aks, a toxicologist and emergency physician—seemed to be more worried about accidental confusion.

"People can buy gummies or chocolate products," Aks said. "I think good labeling and then good storage of something like cannabis is key. If there are pills in the home or anything like that, they should be in locked medicine cabinets and away from toddlers. You know Halloween, there's a lot of candy. Make sure that all the medications locked up so that there's no confusion."

But Aks also implicitly lent credence to the idea that people might deliberately give drugs to children on Halloween. "It's key that people don't confuse these things with candy at all," he said. "I think good common sense would be get your candy from a well-recognized manufacturer that's sealed." Although WLS asserted that "incidents" of such confusion "increase around Halloween," it cited no numbers to back up that claim.

Generally speaking, reports that supposedly reinforce the fear of inadvertent juvenile drug consumption do not withstand close scrutiny. "Should parents worry about drug-infused Halloween candy?" the Akron Beacon Journal wondered in October 2022. Suggesting that the answer might be yes, the paper cited "news that some Akron middle schoolers last month were sickened after ingesting cannabis-infused gummies." But it turns out those kids knew what they were eating.

"We investigated and disciplined multiple students according to the [Akron Public Schools] Code of Conduct," Litchfield Community Learning Center Principal Jessica Sax reported. "We were not able to determine where the gummies came from. They were in possession of student A, and student statements from others involved all indicate that student A was the one distributing them. Student A and guardian of student A deny that they actually belonged to student A."

Middle-schoolers who deliberately consume cannabis gummies, of course, are a far cry from trick-or-treaters who inadvertently eat them based on the assumption that they are ordinary candy. Regarding the latter risk, Heather Trnka, injury prevention supervisor at Akron Children's Hospital, was appropriately skeptical, telling the Beacon Journal "people typically aren't going to be handing out any cannabis-infused candy or other drugs to trick or treaters," in the paper's paraphrase.

"That is a low-risk item," Trnka said. "We know that those folks who get their hands on fentanyl or other drugs are going to be using it for themselves. It shouldn't be a concern that we're going to be worried that we're going to get it from our neighbors or passed out as candy on Halloween night."

Getting closer to that scenario, WLS reported in November 2022 that "Halloween candy possibly contaminated with cannabis" had been "handed out in South Chicago Heights." In that case, a man allegedly handed out gummy bears in bags that had formerly contained marijuana: "Police said Jarod Feilen, 25, has been charged with child endangerment and has acknowledged handing out at least 20 of the packages. Police said he told investigators he ran out of Halloween candy and so he filled empty marijuana packets with gummy bears….Police said they are not aware of any children ingesting the potentially drug-laced candy and are working to recover any that was distributed."

Did those gummy bears contain THC? WLS said the candy was "in the process of being tested by a crime lab to see if the candy itself [had] been tampered with." When I called the South Chicago Heights Police Department to ask about the results of that testing, I was told I could get the answer only by filing a Freedom of Information Act request.

Finally, after many years of searching in vain, we have an actual case of cannabis candy distributed to children on Halloween—in Canada rather than the United States. In February, CTV News reported that a Winnipeg couple, 63-year-old Sheldon Chochinov and 52-year-old Tammy Sigurdur, were "facing 13 counts of causing bodily harm by criminal negligence, 13 counts of administering a noxious thing with intent to endanger life or cause bodily harm, 13 counts of distributing cannabis to a young person and 13 counts of distributing illicit cannabis." Chochinov and Sigurdur allegedly handed out marijuana edibles such as "THC infused Nerds candy" to trick-or-treaters in 2022.

According to a search warrant application, CTV News said, Chochinov told Richard Wolson, a criminal defense lawyer, "the entire incident was a 'mistake' made when 'under the influence.'" He said "the two had run out of candy and decided to hand out their own personal 'stash' of THC candy, adding he and his wife regretted their actions." But police said "there was an ample supply of normal non-THC infused candy at the ready and therefore the THC infused Nerds candy was not distributed as a result of a rushed last minute mistake but [was] instead [due to] criminal negligence."

Last week, CBC News reported that Sigurdur had pleaded guilty to "inadvertently" handing out cannabis candy. Consistent with her claim that she and her husband did not execute a deliberate prank, photographs of the incriminating evidence taken by the Winnipeg Police Service show bags of cannabis candy clearly labeled as such. The Winnipeg Free Press, which noted that "none of the children who received the THC edibles ate them," reported that the couple's neighbors, who described them as "friendly," did not believe they would have intentionally given kids pot candy.

For decades, police and the press have been warning parents that strangers with candy are bent on tricking their kids into getting high on Halloween. Yet in all that time, this Canadian case of what looks like a stoned mistake is the closest thing to a documented example that I have seen.

The same contrast between public fears and actual incidents is apparent when you look at the broader class of purported Halloween hazards. "My research stretches back to 1958," University of Delaware sociologist Joel Best, who specializes in debunking such claims, recently told Fox News. "I have been unable to find any evidence that any child has been killed or seriously injured by a contaminated treat picked up in the course of trick-or-treating."

Still, you can never be too safe, right? Although "there are no records of a child being seriously harmed by razor-filled or drug-laced candies during Halloween," Fox News notes, "law enforcement and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration strongly urge that all candy be inspected as a preventative measure."

Then again, parents obsessed with the possibility of contaminated candy may be taking their eyes off the ball. Although "Halloween is the most dangerous night for kids," Trnka told the Beacon Journal, that's not because of booby-trapped treats: "We see more kids who get hit by cars on Halloween night than any other night of the year."