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New Study on Colorado’s Cannabis Edibles Confronts a Half-Baked Problem

March 25, 2015

Two new studies by the New England Journal of Medicine outline some of the complex new issues arising in Colorado related to public health and lessons learned from the first year of legal retail cannabis sales, particularly related to the sale, promotion, packaging, and consumption of cannabis-infused edibles.  

This is a legitimate and troubling concern for cannabis advocates everywhere. Gone are the days of the previous generation’s “pot brownies,” thrown together without regard to potency or clear labeling. Cannabis-infused edibles take all forms these days and, unfortunately, are usually in the form of sweets, candies, and other baked goods, which are a natural draw for children. While regulations in the new recreational markets require testing for potency, mold, and other contaminants, officials are still scrambling to find the proper way to deter children from the enticing, often colorful branding created to mimic similar candies and products already on the market.

One issue that relates to over intoxication is the serving size of THC and the slow onset of effects. Colorado has restricted the serving size of infused products to be limited to 10mg per serving, and with good cause. Ingested products may take two hours or more before the effects are felt, which often leaves consumers reaching for more before they’ve even started feeling the first dose. If you eat too much, by the time you feel the effects, the results can be overwhelming – just ask Maureen Dowd.

Packaging remains a serious concern, hearkening back to the early days of tobacco advertising and parental outrage over Joe Camel and his youth appeal. Like the cartoon camel mascot, some edibles packaging is considered an “attractive nuisance” that can attract children who are too young and naive to understand the risks involved in consuming large quantities of infused treats. This applies not only to young children, but also to adolescents and teenagers who are curious about cannabis.

Unintentional cannabis exposure in children has, unfortunately, increased in Colorado since legalization, almost exclusively due to accidental ingestion of edible cannabis products. Both Colorado and Washington have ordered that all edibles must come in tamper-proof packaging with a warning label to “keep out of reach of children,” along with a description of a standard serving size. While the guidelines prohibit marketing towards children, none of the regulations specify how to distinguish these packages from any other candy or food product.

With cannabis still listed as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substance Act, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has no say in how these edibles are regulated, advertised, packaged, or marketed. Politically, as long as they remain illegal at a federal level, regulations will remain solely in the hands of state officials.

This study suggests that regulation may come about from an unlikely source: the court system. With edibles becoming more mainstream, lawsuits are inevitable – both from personal injury related to accidental ingestion, as well as from different food companies suing over copyright infringement. In either event, a lawsuit forces the system to confront these issues and make suitable changes.

Rather than focusing on the negative, let’s look at the positive: legalization provides regulatory measures that were not available under prohibition, and as legalization spreads, so will the necessary regulations to ensure the safety and production of infused edibles.

The study ends with a funny PSA-type pun:

“As legalization spreads, new adopters should ensure that their regulatory scheme for marijuana edibles is fully baked.”