Edibles: For Experts Only

3/1/2015

STATE LEGISLATURES MAGAZINE | march 2015

Products infused with marijuana account for about 40 percent of all sales, but are they safe?

By Suzanne Weiss

Injesting marijuana, as opposed to smoking it, has come a long way since the days of homemade pot brownies.

Today, cannabis shops across Colorado offer a wide variety of products infused with THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana—from cookies, pies, fruit tarts and candy bars, to sodas and liqueurs, to honey, salsa, ice cream, butter and salad dressing.

In 2014, edibles, as they are called, accounted for about 40 percent of the estimated $700 million in medical and recreational marijuana sales in Colorado. Some three dozen companies in the state are churning out such products, the largest of which by far is Dixie Elixirs and Edibles, operating out of a 30,000-square-foot space in northeast Denver.

“Demand has been huge,” says Joe Hodas, Dixie’s chief marketing officer. “Our employees have been just killing it working around the clock.”

But the booming edible marijuana market has emerged as a major source of concern and controversy over the past year, generating a series of troubling headlines.

In March, a college student visiting Denver ate marijuana-infused cookies, began acting wildly and leapt from a hotel balcony to his death. A month later, a Denver man shot and killed his wife while allegedly hallucinating after eating marijuana-laced Karma Kandy.

In both cases other substances were also found in their bodies, but those two deaths, combined with reports of groggy,  nauseated children visiting emergency rooms after accidentally consuming pot-infused snacks, forced the state last spring to tighten its labeling and packaging rules for edible marijuana. Regulators are also considering whether to set lower limits on the amount of THC that can be packed into an edible product.

Well before the launch of recreational pot sales in Colorado, the edibles industry had been developing as part of the medical marijuana market—where the clients were anything but casual or first-time users. In drafting the rules and regulations for the state’s new commercial cannabis industry, Colorado policymakers made allowances for serious marijuana users by permitting recreational edibles to contain up to 100 milligrams of THC.

But while state law requires that marijuana-infused products prominently list their total THC content, customers have to read the fine print to figure out that they’re only supposed to eat a tiny portion of the candy bar or other edible they’ve purchased.

State law also says that companies that make marijuana food items must have their products tested for potency and consistency at independent labs. When a batch is determined to be too strong, it must be sent back to the maker to be fixed or thrown away. But so far, only two labs have been cleared to conduct such tests, and the state is scrambling to expand testing capacity.

In the face of growing concerns, Colorado edibles producers are beginning to dial back potency. Dixie, for example, is launching a new 8.5-ounce soda that contains just 5 milligrams of THC. Some Colorado lawmakers argue such lower potencies should be mandatory, capping all recreational edibles at just 10 milligrams THC—one-tenth of the current levels.

Late in the 2014 session, legislators approved a bill requiring the Colorado Department of Revenue’s Marijuana Enforcement Division to draft a report laying out options for better regulation of edibles sold in recreational marijuana shops.

Among the changes under consideration: putting dividing lines on products that make it easier to snap off a 10-milligram serving size or stamping products with colored symbols (like the ones on ski slopes), so that a green circle means the product is for beginners and a black diamond means you probably shouldn’t eat it unless you’re an “expert.”

Other options expected to be included in the revenue department’s report range from an outright ban on edibles to the creation of a commission to approve any consumables offered for retail sale.

Mason Tvert, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, takes issue with the depiction of edible products as “some sort of public health menace.”

“To put this in perspective, the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center reported in 2011 that 2,700 children in Colorado required treatment after accidentally ingesting cosmetics or personal care products, and 739 after eating large amounts of vitamins,” Tvert says. “Compare that with the dozen or so reports of kids accidentally eating marijuana edibles last year.”

He also noted a January 2015 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which states that more than 2,200 alcohol poisoning deaths occur among adults in the United States every year, or about six per day. “As far as I know, no one has died from eating or smoking marijuana,” he says.

Suzanne Weiss is a frequent freelance contributor to State Legislatures magazine.  

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