A Sociological Perspective on the Halloween Urban Legend of “Free Weed for Kids”

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Share on whatsapp
A Sociological Perspective on the Halloween Urban Legend of "Free Weed for Kids"

You know that irrational fear that many parents have around Halloween that their neighbors are going to pass out free THC edibles to their children? Well, using a social problems framework, sociology can help us understand where that fear comes from and whether or not it is actually irrational.

Sticky Icky Social Problems

A social problems framework in sociology typically includes understanding how public discourses (e.g., media outlets such as news sources, social media, popular blogs, etc.) construct­ narratives around public issues. For example, a sociologist might ask “how does news discourse construct the problem of political polarization in the U.S.?” Using news articles as data, that sociologist would systematically collect and analyze data on the topic of political polarization to grasp how the problem is perceived and constructed through public discourse.

The topic of this piece, however, is not political polarization, but rather the discourse around THC edibles and Halloween candy that has emerged since states started legalizing medical and recreational marijuana in the latter-half of the 1990’s. Joel Best, a sociologist known for his work on social problems and what’s been termed Halloween sadism—or “the practice of giving contaminated treats to children during trick-or-treating”—provides a useful framework for understanding fear-mongering around kids getting more than a sugar rush from their Halloween candy. 

Although Best didn’t specifically analyze the discourse related to children receiving free edibles in their candy sacks, he did analyze the discourse on child deaths caused by Halloween sadism. What he found, was no press coverage on any said incident. He makes the reasonable assumption that if such an incident did occur, it would be covered in the press. However, this doesn’t mean for certain that no child deaths by Halloween sadism occurred in the years prior to his original study, which was published in 1985. 

A Chronic Urban Legend

What Best’s research tells us, is that public discourse has potential to construct urban legends, which he and his co-author Gerald T. Horiuchi describe as a product of social strain in society. To say the legalization of marijuana across the country has initiated social strain around the topic would be anything but false. Legalizing the ganja is a frequent topic of discussion in political arenas, and if there is anything in this piece that relates back to my earlier example of political polarization, the debate around legalizing weed is it.

The social strain Mary Jane brought with her new legal status coincided with an increased discussion on marijuana-related Halloween sadism. A quick search on Nexis Uni (previously known as Lexis Nexis, an online database providing access to public discourse from newspapers to news broadcast transcripts) tells us this discourse slowly began to emerge in 2007 spiking in 2014 just two years after Colorado became the first state in the nation to legalize recreational marijuana.

Pot-Pops in High Demand

There has been a plethora of novel discourse on this “problem” just this year, with some notable mentions like the public warning to inspect all your children’s Halloween candy before consumption, which came from the Johnstown Police Department in Pennsylvania. There have also been memes and articles circulating social media meant as friendly, and humorous, reminders that edibles are expensive, and no one is giving them away for free.

But is this fear completely irrational, or is there reason to fear the reefer madness on Halloween? Most sources point towards irrationality. As mentioned, edibles are expensive. A single THC-infused lollipop can cost $10, and that’s before taxes which are typically quite high for cannabis products. Some chocolate bars might even cost you $30 before taxes. Expenses aside, products containing THC are often marked as such as mandated by many states, making them easily identifiable for parents. There is also the fact that distributing marijuana to minors is a crime, with a punishment likely to deter any sadists from following through. Lastly, according to writers at Leafly, stoners hold a harsh hatred towards doorbells, so it’s unlikely they are participating in trick-or-treating festivities at all.

Final Thoughts

If you want to inspect your children’s candy before they consume it, that is certainly your right and your prerogative. But, to be blunt, our social panic each year around contaminated Halloween candy, and specifically THC-infused candy, is nothing more than wide-spread paranoia driven by an urban legend resulting from social strain. Although, perhaps we just need to find the right strain for us that doesn’t result in paranoia.

Stephanie Wilson

Stephanie Wilson

Dr. Wilson earned her Ph.D. in sociology from Purdue University in 2021 after first receiving her M.A. degree in sociology from the University of Northern Colorado. She conducts research on health inequalities in the U.S., writing about issues such as provider-patient interactions, pain assessment biases, social stigma, and intersectionality in healthcare. Dr. Wilson is also a dance educator, choreographer, and performer and believes that art and travel are some of the best ways to learn about society. You can connect with her on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, or by email at appliedworldwide@gmail.com

More from Applied Worldwide

The Closet: Part 2

The Closet: Part 2

Applied Worldwide contributor Eric VanDenHeuvel writes a follow up to his first sociological analysis of coming out of the closet as a gay man in the US.

Read More »