8 Scientists Spend 16 Months Determining Edibles Look Like Food

Roughly 8% of edibles products use copycat packaging that makes them look like food.
Dorritos
Image: Drug and Alcohol Dependence photo.

A team of eight scientists has published what they’re calling the “first empirical report of copycat/lookalike cannabis products.” The conclusions are as follows: 13 packages containing edibles look a whole lot like popular snack foods. This study took place over the course of 16 months.

There is likely a legitimate concern over “lookalike” edibles that are designed to look very similar to, say, a bag of Doritos or Nerds. Every state has rules about packaging, which means that even these lookalike packages have to have symbols that say THC or other warnings labels on them. It is likely not news to anyone who have ever bought edibles (which are edible, you eat them) that packages of food with THC in them often look like packages of food that do not have THC in them, in the same way that Mike’s Hard Lemonade or a can of beer can, to the untrained eye, look like other drinks that are not alcohol

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The goal of the study, “Copycat and lookalike edible cannabis product packaging in the United States” published in the March issue of Drug and Alcohol Dependence, was to document copycat packages. It’s a little more than 6 pages in length and cost Motherboard $35 to acquire. 

The study, which determined, again, that weed snacks sometimes look like other snacks, has been a major topic of conversation in mainstream news outlets over the last few days, leading to a segment on the Today show for example.

The reason for the study? According to the paper’s background, “recent media reports have highlighted copycat/lookalike cannabis edibles as a public health concern. No empirical papers have described this phenomenon.”

Because this is peer-reviewed science, the scientists could not simply say “hey, look at this weed, it looks like things that are not weed,” as many others have already done. Instead, they devised a points system to determine how similar the weed looked to the not weed. 

“​​Each copycat/lookalike package was inspected and assessed for similarities with its CNCC [commercial non-cannabis counterpart] with respect to six features: (1) brand name, (2) product name, (3) font, (4) color, (5) flavors, and (6) brand/pro- motional characters. We then counted the number of package features that were copied/imitated. We also assessed how the cannabis content was indicated. We determined whether each package had the following information: (1) tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content per package and (2) serving, (3) standardized cannabis warning symbol, (4) cannabis product warnings, (5) terms suggesting cannabis (i.e., canna-, cannabis, edibles, extra strength, infused, medicated, potent, sky high, stoned, stoney, THC), (6) cannabis leaf motif (i.e., images of cannabis leaves that are meant to be decorative and do not appear to be standardized warning symbols), (7) activation time (i.e., time from ingestion to effect), and (8) consumption advice (i.e., guidance on how to use edibles). Most states with medical or adult use cannabis policies have a standardized cannabis warning symbol that is typically a geometric shape (e. g., a triangle, diamond, octagon, or rectangle) surrounding a cannabis leaf with or without an exclamation point and text indicating state, THC content, and/or marijuana content. We then counted the number of package features that indicated cannabis content (eight possible).”

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Sounds like an interesting thing to do while high.

The paper found that some, but not all, edibles look like food. Of those, roughly 8 percent use packaging similar to existing snack treats. “We collected photos of 731 cannabis products; 267 (36 percent) were edibles of which 22 (8 percent) represented 13 unique copycat/lookalike products,” the study said. “Eight used exact brand/product names as existing CNCCs, and five used similar names.”

Among these are Doritos, Sour Gushers, Nerds, Kellogg’s, Skittles, Warheads, and Sour Patch Kids. “The remaining five products used names that were similar to the commercial brand/product name. For example, Cannaburst was used instead of Starburst, and Stoner Patch Dummies or Stoney Patch was used instead of Sour Patch Kids.” 

A 2021 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics looked at poison control center calls in the U.S. from 2017 to 2019 with a focus on edible related calls in children. During that period, it found 4,712 calls of varying severity. There are around 73 million kids in the United States.

Legal and medical weed is relatively new in the United States. We’re still developing the regulatory framework around it. Yes, some of the packaging of edibles looks a lot like the packaging for snacks. But, according to this recent study, it’s probably a low number. Again, just 8 percent of the packages the scientists studied were copycats. 

“Future research should examine the child-friendliness of cannabis product packaging,” it said.