The marijuana industry is booming in Colorado, where recreational marijuana became legal Jan. 1. Yet, the industry’s estimated $1 billion in sales may soon hang in the balance, as more reports of so-called “marijuana poisonings” — the result of consuming too many weed-infused products — occur. But as both the industry and health officials prepare to discuss new regulations, would it make sense for these people to just stick to smoking the substance?
“Basically, we are trying to figure out how to come up with a reasonable THC (the active compound in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol) concentration or amount in edibles in proportion to product safety size,” Dr. George Sam Wang, a pediatric emergency physician at Children’s Hospital Colorado, told the Associated Press.
Edibles, or marijuana-infused foods like brownies and Rice Krispies treats, have become wildly popular among the Coloradans concerned about the health risks of smoking it. According to Wayne Hall, an addiction researcher at the University of Queensland, adverse effects of smoking marijuana include respiratory problems like wheezing, mucus production, and coughing similar to chronic bronchitis, which can lead to respiratory infections, he told LiveScience. However, these issues are all associated with the delivery method of the smoke, and not necessarily the weed.
That doesn’t put marijuana joints in the clear, though, as studies have been inconsistent, he said, about whether or not they cause cancer. The problem with these studies arises in the fact that many marijuana users also smoke cigarettes, clouding any evidence that it’s the direct cause of lung cancer. Other studies linking the two haven’t shown causation, either. Hall said that any risk of cancer from smoking marijuana may come from inhaling the marijuana tar along with its smoke.
While it makes sense that no one would want to inhale tar, or risk those ailments, edibles may be an even worse way to consume marijuana. The products are sweet, and beg children and adults alike to sneak into the cookie jar — they subsequently eat too many, or don’t know that the snacks have marijuana in them. This has led to a rise in so-called “marijuana poisonings,” a rather exaggerative term, as it’s impossible to overdose on marijuana. However, it is possible for the THC (especially large amounts) to induce feelings of anxiety and paranoia, which can lead to panic attacks. “You cannot die from marijuana overdose,” Genifer Murray, CEO of marijuana testing laboratory CannLabs, told CBS Denver. “But you may feel like you are going to die.”
Just four days into the New Year, a 2-year-old girl living in Longmont, Colo., was sent to the emergency room after she ate a cookie she found outside of her home. Unknowing that it was an edible, and despite her mother telling her to throw it away, she still ate it. Wang says that he’s treated multiple children who fell ill from marijuana products. The effects of such products are not unique to children either — earlier this month, 21-year-old Levy Thamba ate an unknown amount of marijuana cookies, and subsequently became “agitated and upset” right before running off his hotel balcony and falling to his death. It was the first time he ever used marijuana, his friends told the NY Daily News.
As of right now, edibles are sold in childproof containers with warnings about their marijuana content. They also say that the products haven’t been tested for safety or potency. To try combatting this problem, two bills are awaiting senate hearings. One of them would reduce possession limits on concentrated marijuana products, like oils, while the other would require the edibles themselves to be branded with warnings.
Starting on Thursday, the marijuana industry will also begin testing the pot for potency — a practice that may have taken four months too long to implement. According to CBS Denver, a marijuana lab recently completed potency testing on 13 edibles and found that only three tested close to what was labeled. On the other hand, one was stronger than advertised and the other nine were weaker, with some only containing traces of THC.
Potency, however, is only one of the concerns. As the drug remains unregulated in terms of safety along the lines of other food, tests found some rather unpleasant bacteria. “We’ve found E. coli, we’ve found Salmonella, we’ve found other gram negative bacteria, molds, mildews, pesticides,” Murray told CBS Denver.
“All of us want to make sure people are safe,” Meg Collins, executive director of the Cannabis Business Alliance, which runs out of Denver, told the AP. “The industry is stepping up and is looking at the best ways to educate and communicate to its customers safe ways to recreate with marijuana.”
Perhaps, the best and safest way for dedicated marijuana users to get their fix is neither eating it nor smoking it (from paper). A 2007 study published in the Harm Reduction Journal found that respiratory problems were greatly reduced among users who toked out of a vaporizer. “Vaporizers hear cannabis to release active cannabinoids, but remain cool enough to avoid the smoke and toxins associated with combustion,” they wrote. “Vaporizer users are only 40 percent as likely to report respiratory symptoms as users who do not vaporize … Regular users of joints, blunts, pipes, and water pipes might decrease respiratory symptoms by switching to a vaporizer.”