How better packaging can make cannabis edibles more fun and a lot safer

"Copycats" of familiar products pose a risk.
Grant Currin
Researchers found more than a dozen examples of edibles packaged very similarly to familiar products.12

Thousands of young children have ended up in poison control centers after accidentally ingesting cannabis edibles.

Epidemiologist Danielle Ompad tells IE it doesn’t have to be this way.

“People should be able to do what they feel is right for themselves,” she says. “However adults should be able to use [cannabis]. It should not be marketed to children.”

In a study published earlier this week in the peer-reviewed journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, Ompad and colleagues found that a few manufacturers of edible cannabis products are doing just that.

The researchers collected data on edibles

The researchers “asked people to upload photos of their marijuana products” to a digital portal. They were expecting to find some “copycat” packaging that’s designed to look very similar to familiar brands of candy and junk food.

They found 13 products that fit that description, including a package that looked almost exactly like a bag of Doritos on the front. The manufacturers of another edible had infused a non-cannabis product, put it back into the original packaging, and placed a sticker on the back explaining that it was an edible.

“With some of these, if I put the two packages side by side and you weren't paying attention, you might grab the edible and not realize that it was cannabis and eat the whole thing,” Ompad says. While this data isn’t a representative sample of the entire market, the results show that copycat products are available both in dispensaries that sell cannabis products legally and on the black market.

“I was a little relieved that [copycat products] weren't the majority, [but] I was a little concerned with the fidelity with which some of the products copied their non-cannabis commercial counterparts,” she says.

They also found problems with dosage

The survey of packaging also revealed that many edibles don’t make it easy for consumers to know how much cannabis they’re ingesting. The uncertainty could make for a bad day or even a trip to the hospital.

“One of the reasons why we're interested in the packaging is because we noticed from some packages that we had seen that sometimes the numbers don't add up,” Ompad says. For instance, a package will advertise on the front of the package that it contains 100 milligrams of THC. On the back, “it’ll say that it's 10 milligrams per dose and there are 20 servings,” she says. Clearly, those numbers don’t add up.

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“You need to put edibles in doses that people can purposefully take,” Ompad says. Many states that have legalized cannabis regulate edibles. For example, California law says a package can’t contain more than 100 milligrams of THC and that it must be distributed in a way that’s easy to dose. “For example, you could buy a bag of ten 10-milligram gummies, so it’s very clear that one gummy is a dose,” she says.

The study showed that not all manufacturers are adhering to those guidelines. The researchers found some edibles that purported contained a lot of THC. “Some of the packages had 500 to 600 milligrams," she says. “If you ate a whole bag of cannabis-infused tortilla chips that really contained 600 grams of THC, you would not be a happy camper.”

That much THC “takes away whatever positive effect you're looking for and takes it to another realm of uncomfortability. It might even send somebody to the hospital,” Ompad says.

A bag of cannabis-infused chips demonstrates another problem the researchers came across. Foods like gummies make it easy to figure out what a dose contains, but crumbly foods that are prone to break in transit can make it incredibly easy for someone to know how much THC they’re consuming.

“How do you figure out what’s a 10-milligram dose? Or maybe if you're an experienced user, you're looking for something that's 30 milligrams. How do you figure that out from a bag of chips?” Ompad says. “It makes it hard for people to get the effect that they're looking for.”

Everyone bears responsibility for keeping edibles safe

Ompad says that everyone involved in the cannabis market bears some responsibility for making sure edibles don’t become a source of harm — especially if the packaging might appeal to kids.

“If you're a parent who is using cannabis and have edibles or any cannabis products, keep them out of reach of children and remember that these things really look like something a kid would want to eat,” she says.

The companies that produce these products also need to make sure they aren’t contributing to the problem, Ompad says.

“'I’m just going to encourage manufacturers to think very hard about how they package their things up because these types of products invite even more regulation that could impinge on the market that [they] already have,” she says. Some packaging choices could leave manufacturers open to lawsuits, too. Copycat packages might infringe on copyright (as some companies have already learned), and manufacturers could be found liable if their packaging leads to accidental dosing, Ompad says.

For states that already have regulations, “there probably needs to be a little bit of enforcement” if cannabis companies are producing irresponsible packages, she says. And at the federal level, removing cannabis from the list of extremely dangerous drugs would “open up the opportunity for regulations to make sure that the supply is as safe as possible and that the packaging is appropriate for the content.”

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