Halloween is a time for many things: tricks, treats, watching Hocus Pocus on FreeForm because you couldn’t get your shit together in time to make your Game of Thrones couples’ costume. It’s also the season for outlandish urban legends, from fears about crushed Tylenol being mixed into Pixie Sticks to that old chestnut about razors hidden in apples. This year, a police department in Pennsylvania is participating in the grand tradition of scaring the crap out of parents by issuing a warning about pranksters passing out THC edibles to kids.
This particular rumor appears to originate from the Johnstown Police Department in Johnstown, PA. Last week, the department issued a safety warning urging parents to exercise caution this Halloween, posting a photo of edibles packaged as Nerd Ropes. “We urge parents to be ever vigilant in checking their children’s candy before allowing them to consume those treats,” the post said. “Drug-laced edibles are package [sic] like regular candy and may be hard to distinguish from the real candy.”
The warning was apparently inspired by a recent drug bust in the neighboring area of Stoney Creek Township, where authorities seized 60 pounds of marijuana and 394 packages of Nerd Ropes laced with THC. None of the local media reports covering the bust made any mention of whether or not there was any evidence that the candy was intended for distribution for children, either on Halloween or on any other day. Indeed, when specifically asked about this, Captain Chad Miller of the Johnstown Police Department tells Rolling Stone there was “absolutely no evidence” that the edibles were intended for distribution for trick-or-treaters. “In Pennsylvania, marijuana is still illegal. We don’t have edibles. There is no education. We just want to make sure everyone is aware this is out there,” he says. (When asked why the department’s Facebook post implied that the Nerd ropes would be distributed to children, Miller denied that this was how it intended, saying the department just wanted to “raise awareness.”)
Yet this is far from the first time reports of THC-laced Halloween candy have circulated. Almost every Halloween, a well-meaning police department will issue a statement warning parents to be wary of pranksters distributing THC edibles to children under the guise of passing out candy — and almost every year, such reports are swiftly and thoroughly debunked.
The “Halloween candy is spiked with THC” myth is essentially a new version of the urban legend about razor blades being smuggled into Halloween candy (which has also been thoroughly debunked), says Benjamin Radford, folklorist and editor of Skeptical Inquirer Science Magazine. Both are predicated on the concept of a “Halloween sadist” going out of their way to hurt kids for kicks, and both are the culmination of a number of factors required to create the perfect modern-day myth, he says. “You’ve got the stranger danger, the fear of Halloween, the concern parents have about what the kids today are doing,” he tells Rolling Stone. “Basically, all these elements combine to form this specific flavor [of urban legend].”
The narrative about Halloween candy being laced with THC has a fairly long shelf life. One of the first instances dates from 2004, when a chain email purportedly from the North Little Rock Police Department suggested that lollipops laced with “TYPES OF VERY STRONG DRUGS THAT ARE HALLUCINOGENIC” were being distributed to middle and high schoolers. The drugs were said to come in three child-friendly shapes, including maple leaves, pumpkins, and Santa Claus. Although the fact-checking website Snopes reported that the North Little Rock Police Department had issued no such statement, the DEA did mention in an article published earlier that year that lollipops containing THC and PCP had been recovered in a drug bust by the Chicago police earlier that year, and that they were selling in the city for between $10 and $30 a pop.
Though the report did not mention that the lollipops were being sold to minors – and that bust was not in connection with any Halloween-related hijinks – such reports appear to resurface in connection with Halloween almost every year, according to an (admittedly not super scientific) Google Trends analysis that shows searches for “Hallowen THC candy” and other related terms spiking like clockwork every October. In 2017, for instance, both ABC News in Los Angeles and FOX 29 Philly published reports warning parents of the scourge of Halloween pranksters handing out marijuana-laced candy, both of which got substantial pickup on social media. In September 2017, the Today Show warned parents of the dangers of kids accidentally getting super high off edibles, with journalist Jeff Rossen asking parents and children to see if they could identify the difference between plain old gummies and THC gummy candy (most were apparently unable to make the distinction, though as anyone who has ever actually bought edibles knows, a plain old whiff test should do the trick).
Like all successful urban legends, the staying power of the myth lies in its inherent plausibility, says Radford. “There’s a reason why people believe them: because they could really happen, and that’s true in this case as well,” he says, pointing out that many THC edibles could be easily confused for candy. Indeed, there have been reports of children accidentally eating THC-infused edibles and presenting at emergency rooms: last year, for instance, five children in Arizona did get sick after eating THC-infused peach gummies from what they thought was leftover Halloween candy, police claimed. (The story is dated from February, so it’s unclear why the police would have made that assumption.) But Radford is quick to point out that these cases have largely been accidental, which is “very different than some child being intentionally dosed with THC or anything else by a random stranger.”
It’s no coincidence that searches for Halloween THC candy really started picking up around 2012, the same year that cannabis was legalized for recreational use in both Washington and Colorado. As the marijuana law reform movement gains steam, one of the most frequent arguments leveled by detractors is the impact that legal or decriminalized cannabis will have on children. So in the context of increasingly widespread acceptance of marijuana use, it “makes sense” that this specific fear would take hold in the collective imagination, says Radford.
None of this is to say there are no dangers when it comes to trick-or-treating: as the FDA safety sheet for trick-or-treaters points out, gum, hard candies, and small toys pose a choking risk to very small children, and all candy should be inspected by parents for signs of tampering. But when it comes to the threat of Halloween pranksters actively dosing children dressed as Marshall from Paw Patrol with edibles, the truth is that, as many of the commenters on the original Johnstown PD post note, most edibles are far too expensive to waste on hordes of trick-or-treaters.