When it comes to marijuana-infused edibles, Oregon wants you to know that, like perfume, a little goes a long way.
Snacks and treats made with cannabis are not only tasty but potent. Oregon regulators have come up with rules that would make these products half as strong as what Colorado and Washington allow in part to protect novices, including those whose most recent experience with the drug dates to the Nixon administration.
Oregon and Alaska are part of a second generation of states with legal marijuana markets that see Colorado and Washington not as models but as a cautionary tales about the appeal and pitfalls of cannabis-infused drinks, sweets and foods. In Colorado, home to a robust edibles market, some rookie consumers had high-profile and, in at least one case, tragic experiences after consuming food made with cannabis. Overall, marijuana-related calls to poison centers increased after legalization in both states.
(See related: Legalizing marijuana: What Oregon can learn from Colorado about regulating edible pot)
So Oregon has proposed setting its sights lower, hoping weaker marijuana products would ultimately protect two groups: inexperienced consumers who eat too much too quickly only to feel sick and impaired, and preschoolers who end up high, disoriented and, in some cases, hospitalized after snacking on their parents’ pot-infused treats.
“We wrestled with this for quite a bit, trying to figure out what the right answer is,” said Michael Tynan, a policy officer with the Oregon Health Authority, speaking at a meeting of the agency’s rules advisory committee on marijuana earlier this month. “We are not an economic agency. We are the public health division. The Legislature gave us the responsibility to protect public health.
“That is the goal and the lens that my bosses and my colleagues are going to apply to this.” he said.
But advocates for the marijuana industry said Oregon’s proposal is an overreaction that threatens the livelihoods of chocolatiers, bakers, ice cream makers, drink producers and others who infuse their products with cannabis. Customers, they argue, aren’t going to be as interested in buying weaker treats or stocking up on chocolates to get high.
Keeping young kids from these products is a priority, say marijuana industry advocates, but limiting their potency does little to address that.
“I mean, a lot of this is really just proper parenting,” said John Bayes, a longtime grower and owner of Green Bodhi, a medical cannabis business in Eugene and Portland.
Practically speaking, Oregon’s limits would work like this: A chocolate bar sold on the recreational market would be made up of 5 milligram servings, each marked on the bar itself so the consumer could easily identify a single portion. The whole bar could have no more than 50 milligrams of THC – enough for 10 servings.
Products where individual servings can’t easily be marked, say a drink or container of ice cream, would be limited to a total of two servings, or 10 milligrams.
The proposed limits are half of what’s allowed in Washington and Colorado, the first states to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Both limit a single serving to 10 milligrams and whole packages to 100 milligrams.
The health authority would allow higher limits for products intended for the medical marijuana market, where patients in general tend to consume more cannabis and use more potent products. These products would be sold only to medical marijuana patients and their caregivers.
For states with legal marijuana markets, pot-infused edibles pose a challenge. There’s little science to suggest what constitutes a single serving, leaving regulators to guess at a starting point for consumers.
What’s more, cannabis-infused foods tend to have natural kid-appeal. They come in the form of tasty snacks and confections, like chocolates, jelly beans, candies and baked goods, and tend to look no different from ordinary treats.
Oregon, like Washington and Colorado, prohibits labeling that appeals to kids and requires that marijuana be sold in child-resistant containers. Packaging, for instance, can’t feature cartoons or super heroes. Oregon public health officials plan to require a “universal symbol,” a marijuana leaf next to an exclamation mark, to signal a product contains cannabis.
Advocates of lower serving sizes say those requirements are essential, but don’t go far enough to protect kids, who may look past warning labels and get into a container of cannabis-infused sweets.
“You are putting a recreational drug, a euphoric drug, into a form that is uniquely attractive to children,” said Dr. Robert Hendrickson, associate medical director of the Oregon Poison Center, which last year received 25 calls related to children under 6 consuming marijuana, up from 11 the previous year. (By comparison, the center received an estimated 1,800 calls in 2014 about young children getting into household cleaners, according to data provided by the agency.)
Though they look familiar, these products can pack a wallop.
Plus, they take longer to have an effect. An adult disappointed that a bite of chocolate fails to make them high may eat more – and maybe even more – instead of waiting a couple of hours. Eating too much too quickly, as some Colorado consumers learned early on, can be miserable.
The Rocky Mountain Poison Center received 84 calls from Colorado last year related to people of all ages consuming pot-infused edibles – representing roughly one-third of all marijuana calls to the agency last year, according to data the regional center provided to The Oregonian/OregonLive.
The number of calls the center received about young children ingesting marijuana-infused edibles spiked from 5 in 2013 to 22 last year.
At Children’s Hospital Colorado, 14 kids under 10 were treated for marijuana ingestion in 2014, the first year of regulated recreational marijuana sales. The number was an increase from previous years, hospital data shows. Data for 2015 is not yet available.
About half the children who come to the hospital for treatment of marijuana-related symptoms end up admitted for observation, said Dr. Sam Wang, a pediatric toxicologist and emergency medicine physician at Children’s Hospital Colorado.
In younger children, marijuana ingestion typically involves edibles, Wang said.
While adults are cautioned to take it easy with pot-infused edibles, young kids aren’t likely to show such restraint, said Wang.
“From a child’s standpoint,” he said, “if they have it and no one catches them, they aren’t going to stop with just one.”
In Colorado, edibles’ popularity took state regulators by surprise. According to an analysis of Colorado data by Marijuana Policy Group, a Denver-based economic and policy consulting firm, edibles accounted for an estimated one-third of recreational marijuana sales last year.
A handful of high-profile experiences with edibles, including the case of a young man who ate a marijuana-infused cookie and later fell to his death off a Denver hotel balcony, prompted officials to establish new rules intended to ensure that products are marked and packaged so that consumers can easily identify a single serving.
Products that can’t be easily marked, such as granola, are limited to 10 milligrams.
“You need to be able to intuitively tell what the dose size is,” said Mike Van Dyke, branch chief for environmental epidemiology and toxicology at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “We had some issues around that early on in Colorado where you could have a product that contained a total of 100 milligrams and it was a cookie and the serving size was a 10th of that cookie. That was not very intuitive.”
Van Dyke called Oregon’s proposal to set the limit at 5 milligrams for a single serving and 50 for a package “a reasonable recommendation.”
“I think for a recreational market setting the limit at 5 (milligrams) is going to be helpful for those novice users, people who haven’t used before, which is presumably a good portion of the market,” he said.
Even with Colorado’s official serving size of 10 milligrams, the advice to consumers from the state and from the marijuana industry itself is to start out even lower. Informational cards at Colorado marijuana shops advise consumers: “Start low. Go slow.”
Bad experiences with edibles like the one Maureen Dowd documented in a now-famous 2014 New York Times column were a factor in Alaska’s decision to open its recreational market this spring with lower serving sizes, said Jay Butler, the state’s chief medical officer.
“From the retailers’ perspective, they don’t really want potential new customers going ‘Maureen Dowd’ on them,” said Butler. “The more pleasant the experience, the better.”
Though Washington’s serving sizes mirror Colorado’s, the state has taken a harder line on the types of products it allows.
Perishable treats such as ice cream and cooking staples such as butter are off limits. The state has proposed prohibiting foods that have to be baked or cooked at home, like pancake mixes or cookie dough.
The fear, said Kristi Weeks, policy counsel with the Washington Department of Health, is that consumers would “go home and make a 100 milligram pancake and have a bad experience.”
A three-person team at the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board screens each infused edible product before it’s allowed on the market, weeding out anything “especially” attractive to kids, said Weeks. Oregon does not limit the kinds of edible products that can be sold to recreational consumers, only how they are packaged and labeled.
Among the rejects in Washington: microwave popcorn, cotton candy, hot cocoa and a product called “pot ramen.”
“You have to laugh at that one because who eats Top Ramen?” Weeks said. “College kids. And they are 18, 19 and 20.”
Worries about kids getting into potent products drove Washington to also limit products intended for medical marijuana patients.
Starting in July, the state will allow medical marijuana patients who meet certain conditions to purchase what the Washington calls “high THC” products, such as skin patches, capsules, tinctures and suppositories.
Weeks said the limited line of potent products doesn’t include candies and other treats and instead resembles “more traditional forms of medicine that a child wouldn’t be likely to find and consume.”
“Most kids are taught that pills are medicine,” she said. “They look like medicine as opposed to a cookie.”
In Oregon, state health officials expect to finalize rules for serving sizes by summer.
Meanwhile, makers of these products worry the proposed limits will turn off consumers looking for alternatives to smoking and dabbing the drug.
Some consumers will be happy with a couple of milligrams of THC, while others may want as much as 25 milligrams, said Daniel Stoops, whose Portland company Danodan Grassworks makes marijuana-infused caramels using organic ingredients.
“A mother of two who comes home to a couple kids and has to make dinner and wants to relax a little bit might need 25 milligrams,” he said. “That might be her jam.”
Under Oregon’s proposal, that mother would get two servings in a package, while someone content with 5 milligrams will get 10. If the state moves ahead with the proposal, Stoops said he’ll end up putting 10 5-milligram caramels in a package and selling them for between $ 15 and $ 30.
“It’s a real penalty,” he said, “to someone who has a higher tolerance and needs a few more milligrams.”
— Noelle Crombie