By Daniel Wallis
DENVER (Reuters) - A Colorado maker of marijuana edibles says it was surprised to be sued by Hershey Co, which accused it of ripping off the design of the company's iconic chocolates and candies, because it changed its packaging six months ago.
Hershey sued TinctureBelle LLC in U.S. District Court in Denver last week, alleging trademark infringement. It also said there was a safety risk because consumers, especially children, might eat the pot products by mistake.
In a statement released late on Wednesday, TinctureBelle owner Char Mayes said the lawsuit came as a "huge" surprise.
"We changed our entire label line approximately six months ago, long before these allegations surfaced," Mayes said. "Our new packaging looks nothing like Hershey’s or anyone else’s."
In its lawsuit, Pennsylvania-based Hershey said the packaging of TinctureBelle's marijuana-infused Ganja Joy bars was too similar to the Almond Joy product it makes.
It also said three other TinctureBelle edibles - Hasheath, Hashees and Dabby Patty - were knockoffs of its Heath, Reese's peanut butter cups and York peppermint patty candies.
Colorado Springs-based TinctureBelle said in its response that it had not yet been served with the lawsuit, but that it hoped the matter could be resolved as quickly as possible.
It said that, far from being offered to children alongside regular treats, its products were sold in childproof packaging and were only available to holders of a doctor-prescribed "Red Card" through Colorado-licensed medical marijuana dispensaries.
Mayes said suggestions to the contrary in some reports showed "a profound lack of awareness" of how pot edibles are manufactured and sold under Colorado’s regulatory regime.
Responding to the statement, a Hershey spokesman said on Thursday the company believed it was a "clear case" of trademark infringement and dilution.
"The court will decide if they have infringed on our valuable trademarks," said the spokesman, Jeff Beckman.
Voters in Colorado approved a landmark ballot measure in 2012 that legalized recreational marijuana use for adults.
Last month, Governor John Hickenlooper tightened controls on edible and concentrated forms of marijuana amid growing concerns about safety issues over pot-infused goodies, after two adult deaths possibly linked to such products.
Among the steps taken was the creation of a task force to design packaging for marijuana edibles such as cookies and candy that makes them easily distinguishable from regular foods.
(Reporting by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)