Child hospitalized after eating cannabis cookies packaged to look like Oreos
Mounting calls to crack down on branding tactic after mom speaks out about incident
A New Brunswick mom whose seven-year-old was hospitalized after eating what he thought were Oreo cookies is calling for a crackdown on cannabis-product packaging.
Tobi Russo, who lives on Eel Ground First Nation southwest of Miramichi and is recovering from surgery, says she was having a rest on the couch Saturday morning when her youngest son, Moises, came upstairs to tell her he wasn't feeling well.
Russo said it was plain to see he was in distress — his pupils were dilated and he was having heart palpitations — and she asked him what had happened.
He told her he'd eaten some cookies, and she asked him to bring her the package.
Russo saw that the packaging looked strikingly similar to the packaging for Oreo cookies, right down to the distinctive shiny blue cellophane wrap, and the font on the image of a chocolate creme cookie against a splash of white cream in the background.
Except that they were in fact Stoneo cookies, by "Dabisco," which is not a legal product, and contained a total of 500 mg of THC. For comparison, legal edibles products for sale at Cannabis NB contain a maximum of 10 mg, in accordance with Health Canada regulations.
Moises had eaten both of the cookies in the package.
Russo, who does not keep cannabis products in her home, was shocked not only by the cookies' knockoff packaging but also that they were in her house in the first place.
She immediately called the poison control centre and an ambulance.
Moises was taken to Miramichi Regional Hospital, where he was diagnosed with an overdose and was hospitalized and monitored for 24 hours.
He's home now and safe, and is not expected to have any long-term health issues because of the incident, but it has left Russo badly shaken.
Cookies brought into home without her knowledge
Russo said she had no idea the cookies had been brought into the house.
"I live a drug- and alcohol-free life," said Russo, who has worked as an addictions counsellor. "If I would have known they were in the house, I would have destroyed them."
There are adult relatives and four children, including teenagers, in the house, and there are friends who come and go, Russo said.
She is quick to point out that she isn't trying to spark a "witch hunt" in her household or in her community. If anything, she said, she blames herself.
"I am his mother and I'm responsible for what comes into this house," Russo said.
Her real beef is with the companies that appear to directly target children with packaging that is dangerously similar to that of products they love.
Stoneo cookies, by Canadian online dispensary Weed Deals, are just one example. There are Stoner Patch Kidz gummies, whose packaging mimics the distinctive packaging of Sour Patch Kids gummy candies, Fruit Gushers medicated gummies, Nerds Rope candy, and others.
All of them mimic the original candies, from the packaging colour to the font to the graphic design.
Oreo brand tries to stop 'misappropriation'
"These big corporations should have a responsibility to not make it so inviting" to children, Russo said.
"Adults would buy these products whether they had fancy packaging or not, they would buy it for the effect, so there's really no need to make it look all fun and fanciful."
CBC News has reached out to Weed Deals, which sells the Stoneo cookies and other edibles, but did not immediately receive a response.
On Tuesday, Mondelez International, which owns Oreo and many other snack brands, said in a statement that it takes the misuse of its products and brands seriously and "will act as necessary to protect consumers from actions that misrepresent" them.
"In this case, the misappropriation of our OREO name and our packaging to sell THC-containing products is particularly troubling as the use of our designs may make the products more attractive and appealing to children," the statement said.
"While we have reported the misuse to various agencies globally, we feel strongly about taking action to defend the OREO brand and to prevent its use by third parties to sell unregulated and infringing products. …Our products are safe to consume."
First Nation dispensary drops products
The sale of cannabis in Canada has had some grey areas from the start.
While Cannabis NB is the only legal retailer of cannabis in New Brunswick, First Nations leaders have argued that their communities weren't consulted when the Cannabis Act was being established, and that they do in fact have the right to sell cannabis in their own territories.
Federal cannabis laws will come up for a three-year review this fall, giving First Nations an opportunity to make a new deal with the Canadian government that would allow them to sell legally.
Cannabis NB does not sell Stoneo or other edibles that do not conform to Health Canada's quality control standards and guidelines, including packaging and THC levels.
But such products are available online and at some dispensaries throughout the province, including some First Nation dispensaries, and calls for something to be done about their packaging are mounting.
On Monday night, the co-owner of a cannabis dispensary on the Eel Ground First Nation, also known as Natoaganeg, posted a statement on Facebook announcing it will be dropping all products that employ the brand-mimicking tactic in the wake of Moises' accidental overdose.
Although we may not be able to convince a company to alter their marketing strategies, we can make a difference by choosing not to offer these products in our store.- Devin Ward, co-owner of Lefty's Canna dispensary
Lefty's Canna did not sell the Stoneo product in question, Devin Ward noted in his statement.
However, he said, distributors have a responsibility to ensure that "incidents like the one this past weekend are avoided."
"Ultimately, we are a collection of families that operates Lefty's. We have kids of our own and really sympathize with this unfortunate situation," he said in the statement.
"Although we may not be able to convince a company to alter their marketing strategies, we can make a difference by choosing not to offer these products in our store."
In an interview Monday night, Ward, himself a father of young boys, explained that Moises' hospital scare "hit close to home."
"Moises is the same age as my son, they were in kindergarten together a few years ago. We know them on a personal level, so it was upsetting," he said.
Public Health to discuss incident with Health Canada
In an email Tuesday, New Brunswick's Public Health department said it was not aware of the packaging, but now plans to share the information with Health Canada.
"We will share with Health Canada colleagues for followup as they are responsible for packaging," department spokesperson Bruce Macfarlane said.
He noted individuals can also report concerns to Health Canada, via the Cannabis Reporting Form section on Health Canada's website.
Health Canada said Monday that it is looking into the matter.
MLA commends Russo for coming forward
Michelle Conroy, the People's Alliance MLA for Miramichi, also knows Russo and Moises.
On Monday, Conroy called Moises' close call "horrifying," and questioned how companies can be allowed to blatantly target children in their marketing of adult products.
"We've been seeing posts about Doritos bags, candies and gummies, all of which are pointed towards children's treats. … it's very concerning."
Conroy praised Russo for sharing her story, knowing that she would face online trolling and posting hurtful comments.
"I really commend her for having the bravery to come forward because it will bring a lot of awareness to people who have no idea this is even happening," Conroy said.
"I have two teenage boys here and you never know who's coming and going half the time, they're in the basement, they're bringing in treats and snacks … it can easily happen."
Conroy said she'd like to see "stronger rules" around the packaging of such products, similar to the rules around cigarettes, and plans to look into the matter further.
"It's really alarming that this can be done on any level," she said. "I don't think they should be able to do this at all."