Although the legalization of marijuana is going better than expected in Colorado, it's now clear that there is one major hitch facing the state's burgeoning pot industry: marijuana edibles.
The latest controversy, as reported by the Denver Business Journal, is that Hershey is suing a marijuana candy company for mimicking Hershey products with knock-off marijuana-laced goods.
By itself, the lawsuit might not seem like a big deal. But it's only the latest in a series of issues that have mired the marijuana edibles market since Colorado's retail sales in January. As other states begin to work toward legalization, these problems may act as the first serious problem in how, exactly, pot should be regulated once it's legalized.
What makes edible marijuana different than smoked or vaporized marijuana?
In short, it's a lot more difficult to regulate how much marijuana is consumed through eating than through smoking or vaping.
When marijuana is smoked or vaped, it works through the lungs and into the blood stream within a few minutes. When marijuana is eaten, it can take one to three hours for it to work through the stomach and into the blood stream.
A pot smoker just needs to wait a few minutes to realize if he's getting as stoned as he wants. To boost the effects, he can take a few puffs from a joint and wait a few minutes to see the full effects.
An edibles consumer, on the other hand, might notice the effects aren't kicking in as quickly as desired, try eating more, and end up eating way too much long before he even realizes he's high. By the time the effects kick in, the high could very well be overwhelming and downright uncomfortable.
The issue is further complicated with how edibles are made and packaged in Colorado. A serving is 10 milligrams of THC, the psychoactive substance in marijuana, and a product can have up to 10 servings, or 100 milligrams. (For reference, 10 milligrams of THC is around what one should expect in a typical joint.)
But eating 10 percent of a 100-milligram candy bar doesn't mean someone is getting 10 milligrams of THC. It's possible, for instance, that the marijuana is poorly dispersed throughout the candy bar, and the one-tenth eaten by a user might actually contain much more or less marijuana than expected.
So even if someone is patient and aware of the serving sizes, it can still be very tricky to manage how much THC is taken in. Even Steve Horwitz, edible aficionado and owner of Ganja Gourmet in Denver, previously said he's had some seriously bad trips after eating too much pot.
What's wrong with how edibles are marketed?
The Hershey lawsuit touches on another major issue with marijuana edibles: how the products are marketed.
There are, of course, the trademark and branding concerns that Hershey is legitimately worried about. The Hashees, Ganja Joy, Hasheath, and Dabby Patty products look a lot like Hershey products Reese's, Almond Joy, Heath, and York peppermint candies, respectively.
But the bigger concern for legalization skeptics and critics is that these products imitate candies that are marketed to children. Critics worry that, even with the green stamp that marks marijuana products, younger children might not be able to tell that the Hashees package is, in fact, not a Reese's.
Under current laws and regulations, there are strict limits to how products like tobacco and alcohol can be marketed. This is largely done to make sure neither drug is marketed to children. Marijuana is nowhere near as dangerous as alcohol or tobacco, but it's still a drug — and many people would like to see it regulated as such.
Now, there are some protections already in place for children. Ron Kammerzell, director of enforcement at the Colorado Department of Revenue, previously said the state enforces regulations that ensure packages are child-proof and child-resistant. The concern is whether the current regulations are enough.
Have there been any major incidents involving edibles?
There have been a few tragedies involving marijuana edibles, although in many cases it's still a matter of dispute just how much marijuana played a role.
1. A 19-year-old college student jumped to his death off a Denver hotel balcony. As reports later found, the student had consumed six times the recommended amount of a marijuana cookie. So far, this is the closest example to a marijuana-caused death in Colorado.
2. A man allegedly shot and killed his wife after he ate a pot-laced candy. But police reported that the man also took prescription painkillers, which are explicitly not meant to be mixed with marijuana, alcohol, or any other substance. Whether the marijuana played a defining role in the murder is totally unknown.
3. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd reported her own bizarre experience with marijuana edibles in a recent column. After eating far too much marijuana, Dowd reported feeling like she was actually dead during the terrible trip. "It took all night before it began to wear off, distressingly slowly," she wrote. "The next day, a medical consultant at an edibles plant where I was conducting an interview mentioned that candy bars like that are supposed to be cut into 16 pieces for novices; but that recommendation hadn’t been on the label."
4. Children's Hospital Colorado reported a so-called surge in children ending up in emergency rooms after eating marijuana. The increase, however, represents a tiny patient population: from eight cases in all of 2013 to nine so far in 2014.
To some extent, the blame should also fall on bad parents. "Marijuana should be treated as any other drug or medicine and kept out of reach of children," Melissa Vizcarra, spokesperson for Children's Hospital Colorado, wrote in an email.
It's worth noting, however, that even with these problems marijuana is still much safer than other drugs. All of these stories, after all, can be repeated multiple times over for alcohol. While someone might seriously freak out or even have a terrible accident while under the influence of marijuana, that person is most likely not going to overdose to death. Alcohol, on the other hand, directly causes tens of thousands of deadly health problems each year. That's one reason one of the arguments for legalizing pot is that it could replace alcohol.
What can be done about edibles?
Right now, Colorado legislators and regulators are working on new rules for packaging edibles that would, among other changes, install clearer warning labels on the products.
Some stricter regulations are also favored by legalization advocates. Dan Riffle, director of federal policy at the Marijuana Policy Project, previously said that each package of edibles should be limited to one dose or serving (10 milligrams of THC). Business owners and other advocates similarly support better labeling and education.
Other places have tried to take considerably harsher measures. Oregon, for instance, attempted to ban marijuana-laced sweets after legislators decided that the edible products were too attractive to children. (The state allows medical marijuana but not recreational pot.)
It's unclear at this point where Colorado will end up on its rules. But as the first state to allow retail sales of recreational pot, it's definitely going to be an area worth watching as other states move toward legalization.