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'Edibles': how Colo. is dealing with unexpected problems of pot-laced food

From the beginning of recreational sales of marijuana in Colorado, stories started trickling in about both children and adults ending up in emergency rooms after eating treats laced with it.

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    Legal marijuana cupcakes are displayed at the Queen Anne Cannabis Club in Seattle.
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The popularity of “edibles” – the various candies, chocolates, and baked goods that contain cannabis – took many Coloradans by surprise. So did the problems that came with it.

From the beginning of recreational sales of marijuana in Colorado, stories started trickling in about both children and adults ending up in emergency rooms after eating treats laced with it. A visiting Wyoming college student jumped to his death from a balcony after reportedly eating a marijuana cookie. Another man shot and killed his wife, authorities say, after eating pot-laced Karma Kandy (though prosecutors later argued that the amount of THC – the main psychoactive component in marijuana – wasn’t enough to have influenced him). And in a column that received widespread attention, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote about eating a marijuana candy bar in her Denver hotel room and then spending eight hours curled up in a paranoid, hallucinatory state.

Once the problems became apparent, Colorado quickly convened a working group on edibles, which now account for about 45 percent of the legal marketplace. Last fall, the state health department recommended a ban on edibles, but the idea was dropped in the face of industry opposition. In February, a host of new rules took effect involving packaging and the potency allowed, especially in a single serving.

The marijuana industry was used to catering to the medical marijuana market – adults who used the drug with regularity and had built up a tolerance. With recreational legalization came tourists and people who hadn’t tried marijuana in years, if ever, and knew little about the potency of newer forms. Since tourists have few legal ways to smoke or “vape” pot (doing so is still banned in public and in most hotel rooms), edibles became the natural choice – often with little guidance about what the effects would be and what constitutes a safe serving.

“Edibles were popular in the medical market, and that market was demanding very potent edibles. Now we’ve changed to a model that is more based on tourism,” says Michael Elliott, executive director of Colorado’s Marijuana Industry Group. Edibles were the “biggest challenge” of 2014, he says, but new regulations will help.

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