The limits to legislating cannabis edibles


The state of Colorado got generally high marks for its initial rollout of recreational cannabis from a Brookings Institute report released last week. Writer John Hudak admitted it’s too early to determine how well legalization will work out, but it praised the state’s tracking system, vertical marketplace, barriers to market entry, limiting purchase quantity, video surveillance and assessing taxes, fees and regulations among the successes of the first six months.

Among the things it says the state needs to work on is inconsistent servings of THC in edibles. Not that the state hasn’t been aware of that. New temporary regulations were passed last Thursday that deal more strictly with serving size, potency and packaging for retail edibles.

Which brings us to House Bill 1366, which directs the State Licensing Authority to convene a stakeholder work group to develop recommendations for better ways to clearly mark edibles as cannabis products. The first work-group meeting was held last Friday morning at the Colorado Division of Gaming in Golden. There were about 20 stakeholders present — company owners, bakers, school, police and revenue officials, testing-center owners and advocacy groups. Everybody was there, it seemed, except actual consumers, who were not involved but have as much stake in this as anybody here.

Longmont Rep. Jonathan Singer, who co-sponsored HB 1366, put the problem succinctly: “I want to know what’s a Duncan Hines brownie and what’s a marijuana brownie, just by looking at it.”

That’s a worthy goal, but much more difficult than it sounds. Everybody got to speak their minds, and there were as many different points of view as there are kinds of edibles. There’s a lot at stake here. Although everybody seemed to be behind Singer’s charge, each regulatory change strains emerging businesses. For the most part, the conversation was civil, although it was easy to see which sides were which.

There have been legitimate consumer complaints about packaging, and the industry has responded to many of them — packaging and marking already have improved since January. Another part of the problem has been adding a retail market to an already existing medical market with patients who need and are used to higher dosages. And another piece is the state reacting (or overreacting) to those headlines about edibles being involved in the death of a young man and a New York Times columnist who wrote about a bad experience in a Denver hotel room. Though I’m sure it was on many minds, it wasn’t mentioned that millions of dollars of edibles have been and are being bought and ingested in Colorado without consequence.

The first order of business was to come up with a list of edible products, which brought the packaging issue into sharp context. Edibles come in baked goods, sodas, coffees. teas, chocolate and peanut-butter bars, potato chips, lollipops, hard candies, soft candies, pills, tinctures, bulk foods, cereals, granola, party mixes, gum, sauces and effervescents, with new items coming online all the time. After struggling to categorize them, it was decided they would to try and come up with a complete list for the next meeting.

So how do you ensure that each of these, whether solid, liquid, cereal, candy or pill, is properly “marked” with either stamps, colors, shapes or labels? Does each item need to be marked beyond the packaging? Is there a universal symbol that could be used to let anyone know that the item contains cannabis?

There was interesting conversation, though not enough, about odor. Efforts are made by some manufacturers to mask or disguise it, but it was generally agreed that all cannabis edibles have a distinct smell, and most a distinct cannabis taste. Could smell be a way to let the public know there’s cannabis in the product?

The idea of stamping was discussed. When it was suggested that a stamp could easily be added to a baked good, one baker explained that adding an outside “stamp” also could compromise her entire organic business model. They talked about costs and other problems associated with making changes in presses or adding a stamping process. The idea of using a marijuana leaf as the universal symbol came up, although opinions were divided over whether that would attract or detract teens. One suggestion was to superimpose the Mr. Yuk poison warning on a marijuana leaf. Another one was to put a big THC sign on the label, and there was even talk of adding a STOP sign to each edible package. Could there be a universal shape that distinguishes a product as cannabis-based? The idea of associating cannabis with a color didn’t go far since all colors are already associated with so many other products.

It was just a first meeting, but my general impression was that, good intentions notwithstanding, the state can only do so much to keep all residents safe. There is no evidence that children or teens are getting cannabis from retail or medical outlets. Businesses are responding to the packaging dilemma already. And ultimately, most who misuse edibles have an unpleasant experience for a few hours before it wears off. Unlike with alcohol and prescription drugs, nobody is “overdosing” on cannabis.

Most people already know that edibles are not to be taken lightly, read the packaging and exercise common sense when using them. Common sense isn’t universal, and there will always be that tiny percentage of people who won’t check the packaging for dosage information, who will miss the giant THC sign on the label or won’t be listening to the budtender who explains how to control dosages. They are the ones making the headlines, and to be honest, I’m not sure the state can do much more to protect those people from themselves.

You can hear Leland discuss his most recent column each Thursday morning on KGNU.

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