Dude’s experience and the open pot use I saw made me wonder about public health aspect of legalization. I called some experts to find out if there have been safety problems, how pot and gummy bears are being regulated and whether consumers are being educated about the risks.
The foods with pot — typically baked goods but also sodas, candies and even lasagna and pizza — cause the most unpredictable highs because the effects aren’t immediate and potency varies, I learned.
In the case of gummy bears, one is considered a single serving. But Dude kept eating them because he didn’t feel anything.
Haley Andrews, manager of the LoDo Wellness Center, said about half the shop’s customers are marijuana novices, so the staff takes time to educate everyone who buys. Users should start with one 10-milligram gummy bear, she said, and never consume more than 20 milligrams at a time.
Andrews said the gummy bear bottle’s label listed the number of 10 milligrams servings inside and advises users to consume with caution because the product had not been tested for contaminants or potency. There is no mention of a delayed response, she said.
The Denver Post recently tested edibles and found that potency labeling was often inaccurate.
Accurate or not, labels are often ignored. Dude said his buddy held onto the package so he never looked at it. He claims no one at the shop gave him any warnings about the gummy bears.
There were signs in the shop about how the different strains of pot would make users feel – “calm” or “excited” – but Dude said he saw no displays with advice for novice users, how many gummy bears are too many, or warnings about a delayed response.
Andrews said the staff makes every effort to ensure people use the products safely, but that it’s possible Dude somehow slipped through the cracks.
Generally, using too much pot isn’t life-threatening. But a reaction like Dude’s could contribute to a heart attack or stroke for someone who has health problems, said Dr. Tista Ghosh of the Colorado Department of Public Health. She said recreational pot has been unexpectedly popular with the older crowd.
“There’s a lot we don’t know,” Ghosh said. “I feel like in some ways we’re like tobacco 50 years ago. More research needs to be done on this from the public health and individual health perspective.”
Looking back on it, Dude said he was glad to be in his hotel room when the reaction hit him and not in a place where he could endanger others. According to reports in the Denver Post, pot use has contributed to car crashes and the recent death of a Wyoming college student, who on a spring break visit to Denver, began acting strangely and jumped from a fourth-floor hotel balcony.
Though ruled an accident, a coroner’s report said “marijuana intoxication” from eating several pot cookies was a significant contributor to the 19-year-old’s death, the Post reported.
Children are especially at risk. It’s illegal to make candy or fruit-flavored cigarettes in the United States, but pot candies and cookies in Colorado have been some of the best-selling products. Although the packaging is child-proof, it doesn’t stop kids once it’s open.
Dr. Andrew Monte, a medical toxicologist at the University of Colorado Medical School and Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center, didn’t have hard numbers but estimated that there is a poison control call every few days about a child accidentally eating marijuana products.
There also are reports from emergency room doctors, though no official numbers yet, of children showing up to hospitals in extreme states of drowsiness after accidentally consuming THC products, Monte said. Some end up getting expensive diagnostic work-ups like CT scans and spinal taps, he said.
“What kid doesn’t want a brownie or a gummy bear?” Monte said.
So far there are no mandatory tests of the potency or purity of recreational pot or THC food products, but they are scheduled to roll out in the coming months under the rules to implement the new law.
The process is more complicated than it would be in other cases because state regulators have not been able to rely on the federal health agencies. The federal government deems marijuana an illegal substance, so it’s not participating in the oversight, Ghosh said.
Ghosh said the Colorado regulators have had to start some things from scratch, including finding labs that can be certified to test pot products.
Michael Elliott, executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group, which represents marijuana centers, growers, and infused products manufacturers in Colorado, said there are clean kitchen standards in place now, and licensing of facilities, financial disclosures, security and more.
He said the industry is committed to robust regulation.
Elliott, Ghosh and Monte agree that more needs to be done to educate consumers.
The state has put up a website with information about the law and advice for parents and is running a “Drive High, Get a DUI” campaign, efforts that Elliott says are supported by the marijuana industry.
Included on the website is a page titled “Using Too Much?” aimed at people like Dude.
Public health also depends on people using common sense. My friend Dude is a smart guy, but he knows he was a dumb consumer when he gobbled the pot gummy bears. Now, he regrets assuming that because marijuana was legal nothing could go wrong.
“I was ignorant about the whole thing,” he told me later. “I am embarrassed to admit that I just ate the gummy bears because it seemed like fun.
“It was not.”