I buy kid-friendly marijuana products for my job, and what I see scares me
I buy marijuana for an online educational resource.
Through my secret shopping for recreational marijuana products, I bought a candy bar named after a Disney movie and a vaporizer for a marijuana strain named after a Girl Scout cookie. I’ve purchased mass-produced candies sprayed with THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, and THC e-cigarettes with fruity flavors that look like pencils.
My organization, One Chance to Grow Up, is a national nonprofit group that began in Colorado after voters became the first in the nation to legalize recreational marijuana. Our goal is to limit the harm caused to children by the expansion of the commercialization of marijuana.
Recreational retail sales began in Colorado in 2014. Reports of children 5 and under being exposed to marijuana quadrupled between 2013 and 2019. That’s an all-too-predictable result of THC products deliberately designed to look and taste delicious sweets.
Colorado also saw a statistically significant increase from 2015 to 2017 in the number of high school marijuana users preferring edibles, according to the statewide Healthy Kids Colorado Survey. The rate increased from 2% in 2015 to 10% in 2017 and remained stable in 2019.
Because of these statistics and the obvious appeal of these products to children, One Chance to Grow Up began in 2018 documenting the products sold in Colorado stores and making these photographs publicly available on THCPhotos. org.
In nearly 10 years, Colorado regulators have been unable to stop the marketing of increasingly potent marijuana to children. And the industry has failed to monitor itself.
Our secret shopping has since spread to eight more states, as is proof that the marijuana industry continues to sell products that appeal to children.
National statistics already show that the marketing of marijuana harms children. An analysis of National Poison Control Data System marijuana exposure reports for 2017-2019 found that more than one in three exposures to edibles involved children.
A study recently showed that Canada also has a problem with marijuana edibles, despite its stricter packaging regulations. Ontario saw an increase in accidental overdoses and emergency room visits for children under 10 after legalization. ER visits increased ninefold in the month after edibles sales began. Ten percent of all children’s hospital visits for poisonings were for cannabis.
Monitoring the Future, an annual survey of eighth, 10th, and 12th graders conducted by the University of Michigan, found in 2019 that THC vaping has increased across the board. Vaping of THC in the past month among 12th graders nearly doubled in a single year, he reported — “the second-largest increase ever measured for any substance monitored by MTF.”
What was the biggest increase? The teenage vaping epidemic that exploded after nicotine-flavored liquids entered the market.
Any federal protections for marijuana growers must include federal protections for children. With freedom comes responsibility. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s 2021 discussion bill for marijuana reform would ban “non-cannabis” flavors in marijuana vaporizers. It would be a good start. Limiting flavors to discourage underage smoking has recently received a boost from the US Food and Drug Administration.
But that won’t go far enough to protect children, if the marijuana industry is granted access to capital markets or becomes federally legal.
Today’s marijuana is not limited to joints and e-cigs. Nicotine is never sprinkled or infused into food, but marijuana is. The under-regulated marijuana industry goes a step further than the tobacco industry by adding sugar as well as candy and fruit flavors that appeal to young palates.
This is a recipe for more use by young people.
I’ve seen many bad trends in my secret shopping, including unprecedented amounts of concentrated high-potency THC deceptively concealed in candies. But I’ve also seen some good ones. In Washington State, you can buy capsule THC oil that forgoes the colors, flavors, and sweeteners that make marijuana appealing to kids. Policymakers and health agencies can and should demand such product limits, along with dispensing limits and prominent warnings, if Congress proceeds to reform federal marijuana laws.
Rachel O’Bryan is the author of a white paper, “Kids Get Caught in the Web Spun From Marijuana-Infused Candy: Best Practices for Untangling the Web.” She co-founded One Chance to Grow Up, the only non-profit group dedicated solely to protecting children of legal marijuana age.