Kelloggs, General Mills and others want a crackdown on marijuana copycats

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Two fourth-grade students in Edmond, Okla., went to the hospital after eating what looked like commercial gummies. In Cooper City, Florida, nine children were hospitalized after ripping off what looked almost identical to a common brand of sour candy. And in Roy, Utah, five children consumed a candy called Nerds Rope, leaving two of them hospitalized. The packaging looked like the popular candy made by Nestlé – but the product contained 400 milligrams of THC, the chemical in marijuana that gets people high. The candy with about 40 times the normal dose used by regular pot smokers was accidentally distributed in food boxes to 63 people at the Utah Food Bank.

This week, a dozen major food and beverage companies, including Pepsi, General Mills and Kellogg, called on Congress to do more to prevent the proliferation of copycat marijuana products that mimic their well-known brands.

They want to deter the sale of the products by expanding an existing law so that products containing THC that simulate “famous marks” of well-known brands are considered counterfeits.

“Double Stuf Stoneos” could be it’s worth a laugh if you’re in the right frame of mind, but kids are increasingly being fooled by the use of famous logos, characters, trademarks and fonts on edibles containing THC. On the label, they see the same chocolate wafers and creamy filling of their favorite cookie, but don’t focus on the fine print on the counterfeit that says, “Contains THC.” They may not even be reading yet.

The United States Food and Drug Administration reported 2,362 cases of THC exposure from the start of 2021 through February. Of these exposures, 41% involved children. With medical marijuana now legal in 37 states and recreational cannabis legal in 18 states and the District of Columbia, the number of THC and CBD infused foods and beverages has skyrocketed.

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New Jersey had its first day of recreational marijuana sales last week. Customers purchased nearly $2 million worth of recreational cannabis products in a single day, according to the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission.

But that’s a problem when the edibles involved are Cheetos, Doritos or other branded tasty treats, said Danielle Ompad, an epidemiologist who studies illicit drugs. Ompad is the author of a new study on copycat packaging in cannabis sales that was published this month in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

“I don’t imagine a lot of people trying to dose kids,” she said. “But the children got their hands on people’s products. Even though parents have neatly stored them away, children are crafty little creatures.

Ompad said that in its survey of cannabis products, only 8% of packaging was look-alike, so it’s not a widespread problem, she said. But often these are sold online, which makes them harder to regulate or eradicate, said Katie Denis, vice president of communications at the Consumer Brands Association, one of the groups calling on Congress to fix the problem.

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She said that in many cases there are new companies whose sole mission is to make dummy packages that look like big brands, often with woven stoner puns and jokes (in the style of Wacky Packages trading cards in the 1970s that parodied consumer products). Cannabis growers buy the empty bags online and fill them with the drug-infused product. Many copied packages do not list any manufacturer, so it is difficult to trace them.

“In drug seizures, they find these empty mylar bags,” she said. “It’s not always clear that you could take legal action against the maker of those empty bags.”

Denis said the companies were asking for a simple change to the Shop Safe Act, which prohibits the sale of “counterfeit” products. They want the language changed to include the broader term “famous marks”. This would cover Chester Cheetah from Cheetos on his skateboard, which would already be prohibited by current law, but also the orange and red bag adorned with her nubby puffs and dusted with orange. A famous brand is something widely recognized by the consuming public. The amendment would clarify that products that loosely impersonate well-known products are prohibited from sale online under the law if they “involve health and safety”.

“This amendment would give us the tools we need to get to the root of the problem,” Denis said. “If it’s not that, it should be something else, because the problem is getting worse.”

Although there have been no reports of deaths associated with overdoses of marijuana products, copycat products are not harmless: According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children who ate foods containing THC can become very sick and “they may have difficulty walking or sitting or may have difficulty breathing.

Many proponents of greater marijuana availability, however, fear that products copied into children’s hands could skew public opinion against legalizing the drug.

“It was inevitable that something like this would happen from these big brands. Cannabis companies have been using the intellectual property owned by these brands to get themselves followed for years,” said Paul Henderson, chief executive of High. Times, a cannabis magazine launched in 1974.

“You can’t say that High Times never took the publicity of [makers of look-alike products] in the past, but it’s something we’re much more in tune with now because the market has changed and matured,” he said.

Food companies have invested decades in developing the credibility and reliability of their recognizable products. brands, “and they’re being misused,” said Fred Niehaus, president of the Policy Center for Public Health and Safety, a cannabis advocacy group.

“We are in a period of transition and we need to separate the legitimate cannabis industry from the illicit operators.”

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