On Christmas Day, a 3-year-old was hospitalized in a New Jersey intensive-care unit after eating a package of candy. The pack of sweet and tangy Nerds Rope the toddler consumed had been illegally dosed with 400 milligrams of THC, the mind-altering compound found in marijuana.
Last week, a New Jersey preteen made a similar mistake. The child consumed a large quantity of so-called Medicated Sour Skittles, another illegal product that had been “almost identically” packaged to look like the similarly named popular confection, according to the New Jersey Poison Control Center. That child, too, spent time in a Garden State hospital.
Four hundred milligrams is a lot of THC. Most adults need only a 20-milligram dose to feel buzzed. When the toddler arrived by ambulance at Hackensack University Medical Center, Bergen County prosecutors described the child as “lethargic and ultimately unresponsive.” The girl recovered, but her mother was charged with endangering the welfare of a child.
In each case, the candy was illicit. The only edibles New Jersey marijuana dispensaries are permitted to stock are expensive lozenges — typically $50 for a pack of 35 doses — sold in plain packaging. No edibles are sold legally in Pennsylvania.
Yet, the episodes put an awkward spotlight on New Jersey’s soon-to-launch legal marijuana program, which was approved by voters in November. The incidents raise questions of what kinds of dosed edibles should be made available to consumers — and how they should be packaged — once the legal weed industry is up and running.
The issue of protecting children from marijuana exposure due to the negligent or reckless actions of adults is among a host of ancillary issues that New Jersey will have to grapple with as legalization proceeds and weed becomes more prevalent. Others include how to cope with people who are stoned behind the wheel or in the workplace.
In 2017, a report by the National Academies of Science found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that “legalization of cannabis is associated with a subsequent increase in pediatric cannabis exposures.”
“We’re definitely seeing an increase to edible exposures in kids,” said Diane Calello, a physician and executive director of the New Jersey Poison Control Center at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. “It dramatically increased in 2020 compared to 2019.”
Though the number of cases remains small, Calello said calls to poison control regarding possible exposures to marijuana doubled last year to a total of 55.
“The majority of cannabis exposures do well and resolve over time,” Calello said. “There haven’t been fatalities reported. Parents should not be paralyzed with fear about cannabis candies lurking in their environment.”
Cannabis is not known to have ever killed any child, or adult, in the United States, though experts say young people with developing brains should not be exposed to the drug.
“A little kid getting ahold of it is the problem,” said Ed Forchion, the cannabis activist and seller known as NJWeedman. “Even I couldn’t eat a whole Nerd Rope. If I did, it would have me sleeping for two days.”
A package of THC-dosed Nerd Rope can sell anywhere between $15 and $40 on the street. Forchion volunteered that he usually stocks it at his illegal storefront, NJWeedman’s Joint, in Trenton. “Right now I’m sold out,” he said.
“The issue is that the kid’s parents let the kid get at it,” Forchion said. “You gotta keep it out of their reach. It’s the same as with cigarettes. If the kid ate a pack, she’d die of nicotine poisoning. At least THC won’t kill you.”
Though the candies are packaged to appear like those found at a convenience store, they are not made by the major confectioners. Most are manufactured in small batches on the West Coast or surreptitiously whipped up in household kitchens. Using off-the-shelf candy and cannabis tincture, aspiring cannabis candy makers don’t need much more than a microwave oven. Recipes abound online and on YouTube.
Numerous websites sell the counterfeit packaging. Order the empty bags from Amazon and the shipping is free. Legitimate candy companies loathe the pirates who steal their trademarks, calling the knock-offs “a genuine consumer safety risk.”
“These products imitate a trusted brand, making it difficult to distinguish between illegitimate, THC-infused product, and legitimate candy. This deception can, and has, led people, including children, to inadvertently consume a drug-laced edible,” said Sarah Kittel, a vice president at Ferrara Candy Co., the maker of Nerds products. “[We] are in no way associated with these deceptive products.”
Kittel said Ferrara works with law enforcement to investigate dealers and gray-area online retailers that sell the infringing products and pursues legal action to protect customers and its brands.
Calello, of poison control, said the group had approached the state’s recently formed Cannabis Regulatory Commission to discuss preventing future THC poisoning cases in children.
“This is the first step. We’ve had several conversations where we’ve raised concerns about child-resistant packaging, packaging that is not attractive to kids, and limiting the size of packages,” Calello said. “We need to put into place a structure that will prevent these cases from happening if edibles are going to be legal.”
Prohibiting attractive edibles packaging might help reduce the temptation for small kids to gobble down the expensive treats. But even adults are known to grossly underestimate the power of THC-infused edibles.
In a bizarre episode in 2014, Maureen Dowd, the New York Times columnist, recounted her purchase of a legal THC-infused chocolate bar in Colorado. The Denver budtender who claimed to have sold it to her told a reporter later that he had warned Dowd not to eat the entire thing at one sitting. She apparently wasn’t listening. “I nibbled off the end and then, when nothing happened, nibbled some more,” she wrote. Dowd spent her next eight hours “curled up in a hallucinatory state.”
“As my paranoia deepened, I became convinced that I had died and no one was telling me,” she wrote. She recovered, learning the hard way that newbies should eat only one-sixteenth of an infused chocolate bar.
Said the Poison Control Center’s Calello: “You put up as many safeguards as you can, but it comes down to human behavior, doesn’t it? After all, who eats a single square of a candy bar?”