Cannabis sweets 'marketed at children' being widely sold on social media

·4-min read

Cannabis sweets packaged to look like bags of Haribo and Skittles are being sold and promoted on social media sites such as Instagram and TikTok, Sky News has found.

This screen recording shows one dealer's channel on Telegram advertising a large number of cannabis sweets in brightly coloured bags with fake branding.

Police say that the packaging makes them attractive to children and at least six have been taken to hospital after eating cannabis sweets. One child was only eight.

There are also concerns the drugs are used to lure children into trafficking drugs by county lines gangs, which are based in big cities but use youngsters to deliver and sell drugs to users in towns and rural areas. Police in the east of England said that a third of people arrested in relation to cannabis edibles are under the age of 18.

The sweets are routinely promoted and sold alongside class A drugs including heroin, cocaine and LSD, as well as large quantities of marijuana.

Sky News found dealers are operating openly on the five most popular social media sites: Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter and Snapchat. They are also using the messaging services Whatsapp and Telegram, and the latter is the most popular platform for dealers to provide prices and initiate sales.

The story came to light after a dealer added a Sky News journalist on Instagram to an account selling cannabis sweets.

The sweets are known as gummies and have no connection to the legitimate brands named on some of the packaging.

Some products using CBD, a chemical found in cannabis, are on sale legitimately in shops across the country, but these sweets are illegal and contain high levels of THC - which is the chemical that gives a user a high.

Many appear to have been brought into the UK from California, where drug laws are different.

But some also appear to be homemade.

Ordering in bulk is encouraged, and dealers offer discounts on big orders of gummies and harder drugs.

Searching on Telegram for the word "gummies" brings up many groups where the sweets can be bought for just £5. One group has 62,000 subscribers and two others have almost 30,000 and 16,000 subscribers each.

Typing in the word "edibles" on Facebook marketplace in the UK resulted brought up items containing drugs. Around a third of the first 40 results were advertised as containing cannabis.

Those looking for "gummies uk" on TikTok were shown results mostly showing legal sweets but the app offers suggestions that point users to sweets offered by dealers.

These suggestions include searching "how to get ediblegummies uk" and "telegrampluguk" (plug being a term for a dealer or someone who can connect you to a dealer) and "gummies with htc uk" (htc being a spelling variation of THC).

A network of dealers appears to be operating on some of the social sites. For example on Instagram, looking at the accounts following or being followed by a seller leads you to discover more sellers.

Cannabis sweets are a problem for police forces across the UK. Almost all police forces in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have had an issue with the sweets in their area, and 80% issuing a statement or confirming this to Sky News.

The Eastern Region Special Operations Unit (ERSOU) has a unit which manages the threat of serious and organised crime across eastern England and covers Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Kent and Essex.

Intelligence from ERSOU shared with Sky News suggests boys and girls under 18 are consuming cannabis edibles, primarily those of secondary school age.

A third of those arrested in relation to cannabis edibles in the eastern region are under the age of 18.

Detective Chief Inspector Rob Burns, from ERSOU, says that cannabis edibles are illegal and have side effects, such as loss of consciousness.

He said: "The way they are branded to look like sweets suggests they are being marketed at children, but worryingly also means that they could easily fall into the wrong hands.

"We also know that gangs involved in county lines will use an array of tactics to target vulnerable young people, and reporting suggests social media is used to advertise the sale of cannabis edibles, potentially to appeal to younger people who are using multiple social media platforms."

He added that anyone with information on the sale of these items or who thinks a child is being exploited to sell them should contact the police.

The social media companies mentioned in this article all told Sky News they have strict policies prohibiting the buying or selling of any drugs, including sweets containing THC. They say they actively monitor this issue on their platforms using a mix of both technology and humans to review content.

Meta, which owns Instagram, Facebook and Whatsapp, said it removed 98% of this content proactively in the last quarter and that it was working with the police and youth organisations to improve their moderation.

Most of the accounts and search terms flagged during the Sky News investigation have now been banned.

The companies behind the sweets and snacks whose branding is copied by drug makers have previously spoken out against the look-a-like packaging, and some took legal action.

Sky News has blurred the names of accounts to avoid giving publicity to the sellers.

The Data and Forensics team is a multi-skilled unit dedicated to providing transparent journalism from Sky News. We gather, analyse and visualise data to tell data-driven stories. We combine traditional reporting skills with advanced analysis of satellite images, social media and other open source information. Through multimedia storytelling we aim to better explain the world while also showing how our journalism is done.