(Denver Post file)

Little insight for Colorado lawmakers in ‘two major reports’ on marijuana

The Colorado House’s Health, Insurance and Environment Committee was handed what was called “two major reports” on marijuana that totaled 359 pages Tuesday. But in the reports there seemed to be little that was surprising or new, as they were being outlined by leaders of the state health and revenue departments during in the two-hour hearing.

Dr. Larry Wolk, Colorado's chief medical officer and executive director of the Department of Public Health and Environment, talks to a legislative committee Tuesday about the health effects of marijuana. (Joey Bunch, The Denver Post)
Dr. Larry Wolk, Colorado’s chief medical officer and executive director of the Department of Public Health and Environment, talks to a legislative committee Tuesday about the health effects of marijuana. (Joey Bunch, The Denver Post)

Dr. Larry Wolk, chief medical officer and executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said a 13-member advisory committee reviewed existing scientific literature on the health effects of using pot as the backbone of the department’s report.

“Cannabis has some fairly well-documented health benefits, which we’ve listed here,” he told legislators, referring them to the report. “But obviously there’s a clear need to contribute meaningfully to the research that’s available, so that we can look at conditions for which cannabis is officially accepted as effective, as well as many other conditions of interest, including post-traumatic stress disorder.”

The report is an initial effort to study the health effects of marijuana and is expected to expand to include clinical trials on the kinds of marijuana products being sold in Colorado. Last year, legislators gave the health department approval to use $10 million over five years for that purpose. The money comes from registration fees paid by medical marijuana patients.

Marijuana research: Colorado issues 188-page report on health studies

Wolk said there wasn’t a wealth of new Colorado-specific data available since recreational marijuana sales took effect on Jan. 1, 2014, but the first six months indicated that there was an uptick in calls to poison control centers and visits to hospitals, in which marijuana was cited as a factor.

“On the sort of keeping-it-all in perspective side, marijuana-related emergency room visits and hospitalizations still account for less than 1 percent of all emergency room visits and hospitalizations,” Wolk said. “And things like alcohol-related emergency room visits and hospitalizations and even those related to prescriptions drugs and over-the-counter medications still far exceed the number emergency room visits and hospitalizations as it relates to marijuana.”

He said the increase in pot reports from hospitals might also be the result of patients being more comfortable talking about it since legalization, or the way hospitals code it in their reports now. Wolk said it was virtually impossible to have a toxic overdose on marijuana.

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The report wasn’t all rainbows and lollipops for pot users. Pregnant women, for example, can pass on the active ingredients in pot to their children. The report spells out other known medical pitfalls for pot users.

“We found substantial evidence for associations between marijuana use and memory impairments lasting at least seven days after last use, as
well as the potential for acute psychotic symptoms immediately after use,” the report states.

Smoking too much pot also can cause chronic bronchitis, chronic cough, wheezing and problems with saliva and mucus production.

“We found substantial evidence that heavy marijuana smoking is associated with pre-malignant lesions in the airway, but mixed evidence for whether or not marijuana smoking is associated
with lung cancer,” according to the report.

(Click here for the full report.)

The Department of Revenue, on the other hand, needs more help from legislators on how to further regulate edible products, so they don’t look so much like non-pot-infused goods, such as cookies, sodas or candy.

“We have implemented new rules on edibles with regard to single-serving sizes, potency, the amount of THC that can be in there and the packaging,” Barbara Brohl, executive director of the Department of Revenue, told the committee. “The industry itself is saying they welcome it and they’re happy to comply.”

The rule-makers, however, haven’t been able to settle the conflicts between the constitutional amendment that legalized recreational marijuana, including edibles, and the statute that says the state can’t make a legal product so expensive to produce that it’s put out of business, Brohl said.

The word for that in the statute is “practicable,” which the dictionary defines as “able to be used.” In Colorado law, however, practicable has no clear definition or guidance on what to do if if a product is not practicable, since shutting it down would violate Amendment 64, she said.

Of note, when it comes to compliance, the marijuana industry is doing a better job of keeping out those too young to buy it than the alcohol sellers have, the department found based on its undercover operations.

This story was first published on The Spot politics blog.