With hospitals around the state reporting a rise in emergency room visits of children exposed to cannabis products, lawmakers are considering a proposal to target packaging that is attractive to minors by imposing stricter regulations on labeling and marketing practices.
Assembly Bill 1207, authored by Assemblywoman Jacqui Irwin (D-Thousand Oaks), would ban cannabis products that are packaged in a manner that appeals to children.
“Children being poisoned by cannabis is a public safety issue,” Ms. Irwin told The Epoch Times in a statement July 18. “The danger that cannabis products pose to children is significant. When the packaging of these products is attractive to children, it directly leads to pediatric hospitalizations.”
California was the first state in the nation to decriminalize cannabis for medicinal purposes in 1996, but the passage of Proposition 64—which legalized recreational marijuana—20 years later in 2016 fostered the rise in cannabis poisonings reported to authorities, according to experts.
“Since the passage of Proposition 64, pediatric exposures to cannabis have increased exponentially,” Ms. Irwin said in the legislative analysis of the bill. “These exposures are heavily influenced by the use of features on cannabis product packaging that are explicitly attractive to children.”
Some cannabis marketers have resorted to using imitations of popular grocery items, and licensed dispensaries are filled with such offerings, with some companies mimicking commonplace food items, including brand-name chocolates, candies, cookies, chips, and more.
The bill specifically targets such activities by outlawing them on July 1, 2024.
Packaging regulations would also prevent cartoon characters, animals, people, and representations of any flavors other than cannabis from being used.
Currently, many cannabis brands use pictures and descriptions of fruits, vegetables, spices, and foods to distinguish their products. But if the measure passes, the practice will no longer be allowed.
Descriptors in the names of strains, such as Pineapple Express and Vanilla Kush, would also be prohibited.
The fate of the popular “Cookies” company remains unknown, as its moniker is derived from a cannabis strain that launched its success, “Girl Scout Cookies,” a label that would be banned by the measure.
Proponents of the bill, including a number of hospital groups and medical professionals, say the law is needed to protect young children, many of whom find cannabis-infused candy in their homes and eat it believing it is one of their favorite foods.
“Kids being poisoned are not walking into retailers and being drawn to display counters,” Ms. Irwin told The Epoch Times. “They are sitting at their kitchen tables and in their living rooms and coming across cannabis products that they cannot distinguish from their own cereal, candy, or snacks.”
Reactions to over-consuming cannabis can be intense, especially in children. Accelerated heart rates, respiratory distress, and in some rare instances, seizures have been reported in children younger than five that have overdosed on cannabis.
“Children who unintentionally consume cannabis consistently require poison control treatment, and in many cases, they can also expose their fellow elementary and middle school peers to cannabis,” Ms. Irwin said while arguing in support of the bill.
The measure would also outlaw artificial and natural flavors used in cannabis vaping products. Only cannabis terpenes—the natural essences contained within the plant—would be allowed in vape cartridges and devices.
Such would follow the state’s similar ban on flavored tobacco products passed by voters in 2022.
Opposing the bill are several groups representing the industry, including the California Cannabis Industry Association and the California branch of the National Organization for the Reformation of Marijuana Laws, with the organizations suggesting the law would exacerbate issues facing the licensed industry and fails to address the unlicensed market.
“AB 1207 will increase cost burdens on the licensed cannabis industry while empowering an unlicensed market that flagrantly markets to children,” the groups argued in the Assembly’s analysis of the bill. “As such, it may inadvertently exacerbate public safety issues rather than improve them.”
The groups additionally questioned the source of the products responsible for poisonings, suggesting that illicit cannabis edibles could be to blame.
“[P]roponents of this bill cite an uptick in emergency room visits and youth use but have failed to demonstrate that these incidents are associated with legal products,” representatives for the cannabis industry said.
Complicating matters further is the illegal market that potentially exposes consumers to contaminants that lab-tested, regulated products are prohibited from containing.
Unlicensed cannabis products account for at least half of all sales in the state, according to law enforcement estimates, with confiscated imitation food products, like candies, cookies, and chocolates, routinely uncovered by investigations.
Authorities have repeatedly discovered Sour Patch Kids and Nerds candies sprayed with THC distillate—a concentrated form of THC, one of the psychoactive chemicals contained in cannabis—and repackaged with various cannabis product labels.
Such unregulated products are not limited by the THC thresholds, 100 mg per package, set by the state—designed to minimize the risk of cannabis poisoning in the event a child unknowingly consumes an entire package.
While children might be used to eating an entire bag of candy with no serious consequences, cannabis edibles are typically designed to be taken in very small doses, with multiple servings in one package, according to industry insiders.
With statistics released by Los Angeles County and the state indicating children are encountering cannabis products at a growing rate, there is also a renewed push at federal levels to stop the trend.
The Federal Trade Commission issued six cease-and-desist letters to cannabis companies throughout the country on July 5 ordering them to stop imitating non-cannabis brands.
“Marketing edible THC products that can be easily mistaken by children for regular foods is reckless and illegal,” said Samuel Levine, director of the commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, in a press release July 5. “Companies must ensure that their products are marketed safely and responsibly, especially when it comes to protecting the well-being of children.”
Joining the effort is the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Both agencies are telling the companies they are potentially in violation of fair and deceptive marketing laws, demanding that imitation practices stop immediately. Companies in question are told to contact the trade commission within 15 days of receiving the letter.
Urgency is essential, as the health of children is at stake, according to the agencies.
“Children are more vulnerable than adults to the effects of THC, with many who have been sickened and even hospitalized after eating ‘edibles’ containing it,” said Dr. Janet Woodcock, principal deputy commissioner of the FDA, in the same press release. “That’s why we’re issuing warnings to several companies selling copycat food products containing … THC, which can be easily mistaken for popular foods that are appealing to children and can make it easy for a young child to ingest in very high doses without realizing it.”
AB 1207 will next be heard by the Senate Appropriations Committee once legislative meetings resume in August following the summer recess.