North State legislator seeks to safeguard youths from ingesting cannabis
A child sits alone in his father’s car. Bored and inquisitive, he opens the glove box, reaches inside and extracts a bag of gummy candy. Boys will be boys: He dives right in.
Unfortunately, he’s ingesting more than a sugary treat. These are no ordinary gummies—they’re cannabis edibles, stashed for safekeeping but unwittingly discovered. The boy winds up anxious, nauseated and hospitalized.
This isn’t a shock story or Reefer Madness update; it actually happened, just this May, in upstate New York. A similar incident took place in March on a school bus in Ohio. Two dozen reports of youths ingesting edibles have made headlines over the past two years, during which time the journal JAMA Pediatrics released a study stating that children’s rate of accidental exposure increased 150 percent after Colorado legalized recreational cannabis.
Jim Nielsen, whose California Senate district includes Butte County, has introduced a bill in the Legislature aimed at making marijuana products less attractive to kids and teens. Senate Bill 663 prohibits packaging and labels that:
• Display the product itself through a transparent window;
• Mimic the name or packaging of non-marijuana products;
• Include elements that could lead people younger than 21 to believe that the package contains a non-marijuana product;
• Display design features—cartoons, names, slogans—that would appeal primarily to people younger than 21;
• Display a name or slogan that would make the package attractive to people younger than 21.
Proposition 64, the initiative legalizing cannabis recreationally and commercially, prohibits marketing that uses “symbols, language, music, gestures, cartoon characters or other content known to appeal primarily to people under 21.”
In a news release, Nielsen said youth “are susceptible to commercials and advertisements, especially those with cartoon characters” and that they’re “most at risk to [accidental] exposure with edibles like brownies, cookies and candies.” Nielsen did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.
Concerns raised by the senator—most notably, young people confusing a cannabis-infused product for an innocuous product they know—echo those of anti-tobacco activists. They, too, have seen a retail environment with clever impersonators. Instead of “Pot Tarts,” they’ve lamented candy-flavored cigarillos.
Ellen Michels, education specialist for Butte County Public Health, sees “parallels there” between marijuana and tobacco. She described shops in Chico within 1,000 feet of schools that on one side display tobacco products—“most of which is flavored and colorful”—and on the other side offer “glassware and paraphernalia for using marijuana.”
Her point is that “we already have that close to schools. I would like people to see that that’s happening, and go on to do something about it.”
Currently, neither Chico nor Butte County allows retail sale of cannabis. Jurisdictions that allow medical marijuana shops require licensed locations. So, the worry is less about unsuspecting shoppers than items that have left the shelves.
“They have tied in all kinds of imagery to existing products that kids like,” said Bruce Baldwin, manager of student health and prevention programs for the Butte County Office of Education. Pot Tarts’ labels are designed as near-perfect replicas of Pop-Tarts brand toaster pastries. Kids also may be fooled by candy clones such as KeefKat, 3 Rastateers and Double Puff Oeo.
“I like [SB 663],” Baldwin added. “I think it’s very necessary.”
Baldwin, who also works as tobacco cessation coordinator for the California Health Collaborative, particularly appreciates that the bill has come ahead of widespread legalization. While medical sales and personal possession, cultivation and use are legal, sales for recreational use remain illegal until 2018. Both medical and recreational sales are subject to local regulation.
Baldwin sees legalization for medical purposes as a major factor for marijuana shedding a stigma. California was among the first states to do so, with Prop. 215 in 1996; with last year’s passage of Prop. 64, California joined the vanguard of states legalizing marijuana for recreational use.
According to statistics compiled by KidsData.org, part of the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health, more Butte County teens use marijuana than tobacco. The surveys show that 85 percent of junior high and high school students say they’ve never smoked and just 6.6 percent say they’ve smoked more than seven times ever. Fewer—75 percent—say they’ve never used marijuana, and 13.7 percent say they’ve used it seven or more times. Strikingly, 25 percent of 11th-graders use marijuana repeatedly versus 12.2 percent who smoke cigarettes as habitually. These statistics mirror national ones, with teen use of marijuana overtaking that of cigarettes for the first time in 2015, according to Time magazine.
“I work with a lot of young people face to face, and the real issue I’ve seen [with cannabis] is, ‘Well, if it’s medicine, it can’t be that bad,’” Baldwin said. “For crying out loud, heroin was medicine when it was first introduced! Bayer Aspirin put it in bottles and sold it to people [as cough medicine in the 1890s and 1900s].
“It’s hard to get a kid to understand that just because it’s medicine doesn’t mean that it’s safe for everybody to use.”
Particularly in high concentrations, cannabinoids—the active chemicals in cannabis—can trigger long-term effects, Michels said. Human brains continue to develop through young adulthood; exposure to THC, one of the more potent cannabinoids, in high doses can impact mental health.
“Especially with the THC concentrations so high now, marijuana is not the same thing as it was a decade or two ago,” she said. “It’s commercialized. And the products are not the same—you have highly concentrated products that can be very dangerous if kids get a hold of them.”
Just as Michels sees a parallel between marijuana and tobacco, Baldwin finds a comparison between edibles and energy drinks. He explained how beverage makers began creating products with alcohol that can be hard to distinguish from the everyday Red Bull or Monster or Full Throttle. Some stores stock the cans side by side.
“There’s been a lot of effort to change that, to change that packaging,” he said.
As of the CN&R’s deadline, SB 663 had passed in the Assembly and awaited Senate concurrence to amendments for final approval.
“Now is the time to do what Sen. Nielsen is doing—now is the time to put in as many laws to protect children as possible,” Baldwin said. “Let’s not wait like we did with tobacco … and then hav[e] to fight this rich and powerful industry.”