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The Cannabis-Tainted Halloween Candy Craze

Keegan Williams

By Keegan Williams

October 13, 2022

Costumed dog on a trick or treating adventure with kids

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It’s a persistent and longstanding

tradition that, like it or not, tends to rear its ugly head each year. You can see it already in memes this year: “Watch out parents: Just found this in my kid’s candy…” paired with a photo of open candy and a random, often inappropriately sized item, like a gallon of bleach or an entire butcher knife. The tainted Halloween candy myth lives on.

What started in the late ‘50s as a stern warning for parents to check their children’s Halloween candy for razor blades, poison or needles, apparently planted by other neighborhood households with the intent to harm random children, has now veered into the cannabis space. 

With the legalization of cannabis and an array of infused edible candies, the updated cautionary tale now urges parents to look out for cannabis edibles among kids’

hauls.

The warning makes a regular resurgence around this time each year, but is it merited? Is finding cannabis-infused candy a legitimate concern parents should pay attention to?

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A Bit of Background: The Tainted Halloween Candy Craze

Before we tackle the cannabis element of this conversation, it’s important to understand the context of the concerns surrounding suspicious, tainted Halloween candy.

The seed was planted with the Industrial Revolution, the first era that food production occurred outside the home, often out of town. For the first time in American history, people didn’t know who was making their food and how it was being made, creating a sense of distrust for the products and the people behind them.

One of the first reports of contaminated Halloween candy was in 1959, when a dentist in California

coated in candy, resulting in 30 sick kids.

“Take, for example, that plump red apple that Junior gets from a kindly old woman down the block,” the New York Times wrote after the incident. “It may have a razor blade hidden inside. The chocolate ‘candy’ bar may be a laxative, the bubble gum may be sprinkled with lye, the popcorn balls may be coated with camphor, the candy may turn out to be packets containing sleeping pills.”

Things settled for a while until the Chicago Tylenol Murders of 1982, where seven people died after taking pain medication randomly poisoned with cyanide. While stories around modified Halloween candies had circulated prior to this incident, they saw a spike after the murders. Had the poisoning never occurred, many theorize that authorities may not have taken the Halloween candy claims as seriously.

Over time, it became increasingly commonplace to see these types of warnings around Halloween, that people randomly distributing poisoned or dangerous treats to children was a legitimate and widespread issue. 

Closeup of toddler girl trick or treating on Halloween. Happy child outdoors counting sweets from pumpkin bag for sweet haunt. Family festival season in october. Outdoor activity. Trick or treat fun
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The truth? Your kids probably aren’t in any danger of receiving Halloween candy that’s been tampered with, or infused with cannabis.

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An Expert in Halloween Sadism

Joel Best, a University of Delaware sociology and criminal justice professor, has researched reports of Halloween candy tampering in the U.S. dating back to the 1950s. He describes the practice of giving tainted Halloween candy to trick-or-treating children as “Halloween sadism” and calls it a “legend” rather than a myth, given that it is mostly communicated informally.

Best’s research found about 200 confirmed cases of candy tampering in the U.S. and Canada since 1958, though he

, “The attempts to systematically follow up on all reports concluded that the vast majority were hoaxes. Is it possible that someone maliciously passes out treats with the intent of harming children at random? Of course. But this raises the question why there usually aren’t multiple reports from the same area.”

In many instances, Best

that kids tampered with their own candy for attention, a friend or family member played a bad prank or a foreign object accidentally found its way inside candy during manufacturing. 

“It’s really easy to do,” he says. “You can put a pin in a candy bar, and then run and say, ‘Look, mom and dad, I found a pin in my candy bar!’ and you’re rewarded with the concerned attention of adults who are treating you as a victim rather than a pest.”

He writes that he can “never prove” no child has been killed by a Halloween sadist, yet he cannot find evidence of such a story being covered by major media. He found

initially attributed to Halloween sadism; however, in all cases, a closer look revealed the actual cause of death to be for unrelated reasons.

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What About Cannabis Tainted Halloween Candy?

Best said that the story surrounding THC-laced Halloween treats is just the newest iteration of the old legend. In a similar fashion as the old story spread, Best said this story generally is blown up among people who “have no idea what this stuff costs.”

Speaking with the

last year, Best mirrored the sentiments of myriad cannabis users combating the same narratives — the price of edibles, often ranging from at least $10-20 a package depending on the product and dosage, is something few want to give away, he said.

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He also said that the narrative often changes with the tide of the news cycle. After the Tylenol murders, it was poisoning; after 9/11,

circulated that terrorists would strike a shopping mall on Halloween. 

Last year, attorneys general in several states

just before Halloween about cannabis products that look like normal snacks and candy. And just this month, a Missouri mom cannabis gummy worms in her five-year-old’s Halloween candy at a trunk-or-treat event.

Ultimately, police checked all the candy and didn’t find any additional packages of THC-infused candy. They believe the incident was an accident.

“We don’t believe at this time there was malicious intent. That somehow these gummy worms got mixed in with candy because they do look like candy,” said Lt. Tom Wilkison of the St. Charles Police Department.

Best similarly suggested to Vice in 2016 that there is a possibility for a thoughtless mixup, not necessarily the criminal desire to get children high.

“You can imagine a fraternity party in Boulder where there’s a big bowl of this stuff out. If somebody decides to take a piece home, at that point it could get into somebody’s hands.”

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The Real Dangers

Best suggested parents keep an eye out for loose candy, but a commercially wrapped candy is generally a safe bet.

And it is important to be attentive. Research shows Halloween is indeed a fairly dangerous holiday — when it comes to pedestrian deaths. A study published last year in

looked at data over a 42-year period in the U.S., finding that there was a 43 percent higher risk of pedestrian deaths Halloween night, when compared to a week before and after.

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“We found that particularly amongst kids aged 4 to 8, the risk was tenfold higher on Halloween,” said John Staples, lead author, clinical assistant professor of medicine and scientist at the University of British Columbia. “So, anybody who gets behind the wheel of a vehicle should really be conscious that Halloween, of all nights, is the night to slow down.”

Ultimately, we should also be wary of conflating two issues around

and kids as one in the same.

“Copycat edibles” with packaging reminiscent of popular food brands have consistently made headlines in the past few years due to their appeal to children, but it’s with noting that these products are generally sold online, or outside of the established,

. In fact, many state compliance departments have policies in place explicitly to avoid specific product shapes or branding decisions that would appeal to children.

“The reputable business people in cannabis do not engage in this kind of conduct,”

Henry Wykowski, legal counsel for the National Cannabis Industry Association. “There are other people that are still operating in the illicit market and they aren’t following the rules.”

Storage is Key

So, when we talk about kids getting into cannabis-infused edibles, it’s important we are specific: The vast majority of these cases happen in the home, by accident. They are not malicious instances of drugging children trick-or-treating.

In Washington state, unintentional cannabis exposures among children under six

in the five years after retail cannabis stores opened. In 2016, there were 187 exposures to cannabis edibles among kids 12 and under in the U.S., according to data from the American Association of Poison Control Centers. By 2020, that number rose to more than 3,100, a majority of the children being five years old and under.

conducted by The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto found a threefold increase in intensive care admissions for severe cannabis poisoning for kids under age 12 in the first two years after cannabis was legalized, primarily due to edibles. 

The findings ultimately encourage the public to be even more careful when storing their cannabis products within the home, especially when they could be mistaken by children for regular food or candy. 

The best way to ensure the children in your life avoid cannabis edibles is with proper storage. While products may be advertised as child-resistant, don’t assume that alone will deter a child from getting into a package of edibles.

Locking away cannabis-infused edibles is best. Similarly, the

recommends, if your child is spending time at a friend’s house, to ask their parents whether they keep cannabis at home and if it is stored safely. Similarly, anyone with guests in their home should ensure they understand house rules about keeping cannabis in a safe, secure place.

Little girl in witch costume having fun outdoors on Halloween trick or treat
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Final Thoughts

Ultimately, when tackling the conversation of conniving cannabis criminals maliciously mixing in infused treats with the intent of getting your kids high, don’t believe the hype. While it is important to check out your kids’ trick-or-treating bags for tainted Halloween candy anyway — if anything for unwrapped treats, potential allergens or just to steal a few for yourself — the prevalence of this story strongly outweighs its presence in reality.

The issue surrounding children ingesting edibles is important to recognize, but it is separate from this long-touted urban legend. Ultimately, proper storage and communication in households with children and cannabis is the best solution to curb this problem.

While there’s surely nothing wrong with having some caution, we might also begin to navigate away from this near-century-long myth that our neighbors inherently wish our children ill will and simply enjoy the holiday. Happy haunting!

Keegan Williams

About The Author

Keegan Williams

HIGH THERE MISSION

WE’RE A CREATIVE COMMUNITY — EXPLORING THE SCIENCE, CRAFT, AND CULTURE OF CANNABIS.
WE BELIEVE THAT WE HAVE A COLLECTIVE RESPONSIBILITY TOWARDS ERADICATING THE STIGMA, MISINFORMATION, AND INEQUITIES SURROUNDING THIS PLANT, SO WE CAN UNLOCK ITS TRUE POTENTIAL FOR ALL.

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