Dixie Elixirs & Edibles employees Jaymie Giordano, left, and Zak Mishaw carefully cut the marijuana-infused Colorado Bars produced at the Denver company. Each bar contains 100 milligrams of THC, the psychoactive chemical in marijuana, or 10 servings. (Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post)

Appetite for edibles in Colorado big surprise for recreational market

As one of the people charged with implementing marijuana legalization in Colorado, Ron Kammerzell thought he had considered everything.

And then inexperienced users bit off more than they could chew, and reports of people consuming too much edible pot at once started to add up.

“That really wasn’t on anyone’s radar,” Kammerzell said.

The proliferation of marijuana edibles stunned state and industry leaders, making it one of the biggest surprises during the first year of legal recreational marijuana sales. Potent cookies, candies and drinks — once considered a niche market — now account for roughly 45 percent of the legal marijuana marketplace and led to the most high-profile marijuana controversies in 2014.

The variety of marijuana-infused edibles available became a “point of fascination” for consumers, said Joe Hodas, chief marketing officer for Dixie Elixirs & Edibles, one of Colorado’s largest producers of infused products.

“We knew that there would be consumer interest in edibles, but I think we did underestimate that the demand would exceed our expectations,” Hodas said.

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Neither Kammerzell, enforcement director for the Department of Revenue, which regulates marijuana businesses, nor Hodas predicted the overwhelming popularity of edibles or the problems stemming from overconsumption. During the rollout of medical marijuana sales, there were no serious reports of overconsumption, Kammerzell said.

But when recreational marijuana sales became legal Jan. 1, the makeup of legal marijuana consumers changed overnight — from experienced users with higher tolerances to floods of novice consumers, many of whom were unaware that one candy or cookie can contain 10 times the recommended amount of 10 milligrams of THC, the psychoactive chemical in marijuana.

During the first month of recreational sales, Dixie Elixirs saw a fivefold increase in the number of orders it received compared with two months before, Hodas said. For many inexperienced users, the idea of discreetly nibbling on a chocolate truffle was more appealing than smoking pot.

“That image of sitting with a big joint, that’s not something these new users are really interested in,” Hodas said.

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But as the popularity of edibles grew, so did concerns about overconsumption.

In March, the same month state lawmakers started working on legislation requiring regulators to create additional rules for labeling edibles, Wyoming college student Levy Thamba, 19, became agitated after eating a marijuana-infused cookie and leapt to his death from a Denver hotel balcony.

Weeks later, Richard Kirk allegedly shot and killed his wife after nibbling on a marijuana-infused caramel chew. A low level of THC was found in Kirk’s blood that night, but prosecutors argue Kirk acted deliberately and the effects of the drug were not enough to affect his grasp on reality.

Those two events spurred a frenzied conversation on the potential risks of edibles. A working group was formed, and state officials and industry leaders teamed up to improve education for consumers.

Budtenders, who before had been making recommendations of how much to eat based on their own experiences, worked to give consumers consistent instructions, Hodas said. Using the slogan “Start low and go slow,” they advised inexperienced users to eat a small portion of an edible and wait.

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Even as improvements were made in education, hospitals continued to see an increase in the number of children and adults coming into emergency rooms after having consumed too much of an edible.

“The increase from a medical standpoint has been dramatic,” said Dr. Christopher Colwell, chief of emergency medicine at Denver Health Medical Center.

Colwell estimated there was a fivefold to tenfold increase in the number of patients — including a sharp rise in the number of adolescents and teenagers — arriving at the hospital after consuming part or all of a marijuana edible.

Colwell said he expected an increase in the number of marijuana cases. But he said he was surprised and concerned with the higher potency of THC in the edibles and the more severe symptoms it can cause.

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State regulators started incentive programs for producers to create products with lower or single servings of THC, Kammerzell said. Most have already started shifting toward single-serving products.

But Dr. Larry Wolk, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said few of his concerns surrounding edibles were addressed this year. In October, the health department proposed a ban on the sales of nearly all forms of edibles but quickly dropped the idea after an industry outcry.

Wolk said even after changes in packaging and decreasing the amount of THC in edibles, he is still concerned that as long as edibles come in the form of cookies, candies and other foods enticing to children, they will continue to be dangerous for children.

“There’s the potential that we, the health department, could be viewed as the bad guy,” Wolk said. “We’ve learned after the fact that something more needs to be done to protect the public and especially our kids.”

Jordan Steffen: 303-954-1794 or jsteffen@denverpost.com

This story was first published on DenverPost.com