A selection of infused marijuana edibles on display at the Denver Relief shop in April 2016. (Vince Chandler, The Denver Post)

New study reveals what makes marijuana edibles most attractive to young kids

Colorado’s new rules for marijuana-infused edibles take important steps to keep the products from being attractive to young children but also may not go far enough, a recently released study suggests.

The rules — which are being finalized and take effect in 2017 — prohibit edible pot products from being made in animal or fruit shapes. That is important because playful shapes are one of the key things that makes food alluring to kids, said Sam Méndez, the executive director of the University of Washington’s Cannabis Law and Policy Project and the author of the new report.

But Méndez’s research identified other elements — such as color, smell and taste — that also make food attractive. And those are things that Colorado’s new rules do not regulate.

Méndez’s study was commissioned by Washington state’s Liquor and Cannabis Board, the organization that oversees marijuana businesses in that state. The goal was to learn more about a problem that has dogged pot businesses in both Washington and Colorado: How do you keep kids from accidentally eating marijuana edibles that look similar to non-infused treats?

After legalization in Colorado, emergency room visits for kids who accidentally consumed marijuana roughly doubled, though the numbers are still small compared to ingestions of pharmaceuticals or household products. Marijuana-infused edibles accounted for about half of all cannabis ingestion cases.

Because Méndez couldn’t entice kids with actual marijuana-infused products, he instead studied what makes food appealing to young children in general. He found that color, shape, smell and taste all play a part — in ways that are entirely expected.

Children are attracted to foods in interesting shapes, such as stars or animals, more so than foods in blocky geometric shapes. They prefer foods that are red, orange, yellow or green. They like foods that smell and taste sweet. They are also most attracted to packaging with bright colors and cartoon figures.

Most importantly, Méndez found that eliminating just one attractive element was unlikely to eliminate the food’s appeal to kids.

“No single factor was exactly proof positive,” he said.

For that reason, he said the best approach for states looking to keep kids from accidentally eating pot is to have regulators look at a variety of elements to decide whether a product is too appealing to children.

Colorado’s rules for marijuana edibles already do that — to an extent. In addition to the new rules on edible shapes, the rules also prohibit packaging and food additives designed to appeal to kids. The rules, for instance, specifically single out the word “candy” as something that should not go on an edible’s label. But the rules do not regulate color or smell.

Rep. Jonathan Singer, a Longmont Democrat who has taken on edibles regulation in past legislative sessions, said the research shows Colorado is on the right track. But, he said, the state needs to know more — such as whether even stricter regulations can be shown to reduce hospital visits due to accidental ingestions — before deciding whether to further tweak the rules.

“We still have many questions to answer,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Méndez, too, said it is uncertain how much extra regulation of edibles can eliminate the problem.

“The primary responsibility,” he said, “falls on parents to keep these things away from kids.”

This story was first published on DenverPost.com