Legal Marijuana Has Become A Food Safety Issue

The state of Colorado is experiencing a bad case of the munchies. Both supporters and opponents of legal marijuana are increasingly worried that consumers of cannabis-laced foods—such as brownies, candy and cookies — are binge eating their way toward overdoses.

And this isn't just another "reefer madness" scare story, it's a real public health issue. Overconsumption of THC has been associated with tremendous fatigue and upset stomachs. Fears in the medical community also exist that such consumption can lead to serious psychoactive effects. And, there's much we still don't know, since research on the effects of overconsumption of THC has been quite limited, often stymied by federal marijuana prohibitions.

But in Colorado, it's not a theoretical problem. John Hudak, an expert in governance at the Brookings Institution, has spent several months in the state, observing how it has been dealing with the unprecedented challenge of changing the laws and regulations to allow for the establishment of a legal retail marijuana industry. A report that he just published gives Colorado high marks for how it's handled the transition, and he even believes the state's experiences have much to teach the rest of the country about making government more effective.

Even the best laid plans, however, have unforeseen circumstances. And such is the case with marijuana edibles. Why are they such a big concern? Hudak describes several reasons:

In many cases, serving sizes can lead to overconsumption of THC, because naïve users do not have a complete grasp of product dosing and because self-regulation in the consumption of standard food is so different than what is required with marijuana edibles. In some cases, serving sizes are clear and intuitive; in others they are not.

In my own trip to a retail marijuana dispensary, I observed a couple interested in purchasing a marijuana brownie. The "budtender" explained in detail to the buyer that the brownie contained six servings and that proper consumption involved dividing the brownie or biting off a small chunk. The information was correct and clear, but who eats a sixth of a brownie or a quarter of a candy bar? Moreover, people who smoke, dab, or vape marijuana experience the effects quickly. However, edibles can take 30 to 60 minutes before the consumer feels a "high." As a result, an individual—particularly one unfamiliar with marijuana edibles—may overconsume, believing the product is ineffective.

Inconsistent potency is also a serious problem. …. In some cases, 100mg edible packages contained less than half of one milligram of THC. In others, 100mg packages had nearly 1.5 times the stated amount of THC. Potency errors make even responsible consumption a challenge. When there is substantially more THC in an edible than is labeled, overconsumption can occur even when the consumer follows directions carefully. When THC content is lower than labeled, the user may be lulled into overconsuming a subsequent edible. Either way, the result is a dangerous miscalculation.

Edibles also come in forms—including candies, chocolates, brownies, cereals, and the like—that pose serious risks of accidental consumption by children and others….. Labeling, packaging, and products themselves present serious concerns, and ones which, to date, the state has failed to deal with in a comprehensive and effective way.

Colorado has begun addressing the issue by establishing a more comprehensive product-testing program. The goal is not just to check product potency, but also to set up laboratory certification processes and standards for testing facilities. How well it works is yet to be seen — but Colorado has so far proven itself adept at adjusting its policies when they don't work. The best indicator of good governance is the willingness to admit when existing regulatory systems are broken.