Pot-friendly Colorado is still working on the perfect recipe for regulating edible marijuana, in the face of data showing an increase in accidental ingestion of marijuana-infused treats.
The state's latest attempt legislates new warning labels for edibles, which have become increasingly popular. Through June of this year, consumers spent $73.5 million US on edible pot — more than 12 per cent of total marijuana sales, according to cannabis data firm BDS Analytics.
The high demand for edibles — and Colorado's continuing attempts to tweak regulations — are a lesson for Canada, as the federal government moves toward legalizing recreational marijuana. Canadian authorities, including Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders, are already expressing concern that those potent edible treats could pose a health risk to children.
A potential risk to children's health
Emergency room visits to Children's Hospital Colorado for ingestion of marijuana edibles have increased since pot legalization, according to Dr. Michael DiStefano, a pediatric emergency medicine physician. He's especially concerned because kids are eating marijuana edibles by accident.
"They pick up [what they think is] a Swedish Fish and it looks like a gummy candy, and they eat it without knowing that there's marijuana in the product," he says.
Children who have accidentally ingested edible marijuana can have trouble breathing, with potentially fatal consequences, according to DiStefano.
"We've admitted kids who have ingested so much marijuana that they needed to be on a ventilator to help support their respiratory system," he says.
Data from the Rocky Mountain Poison & Drug Center show 231 marijuana exposures in Colorado in 2015, 91 of which involved edible marijuana. Half of the 231 total exposures involved children younger than 18.
In Canada, Vancouver Coastal Health's medical health officer has already flagged the concern about children accidentally eating pot.
"I think we have to think carefully about what format we'd like to have edibles available," Dr. Patricia Daly said in an interview with CBC News this spring. She noted that of the 63 people admitted to St. Paul's Hospital for a pot overdose following a 4/20 celebration, roughly 70 per cent of them had been eating pot instead of smoking it.
A new attempt to regulate edibles
Edible marijuana products sold in Colorado are already subject to a range of regulatory restrictions. Those sold for recreational use must be offered in standard servings containing no more than 10 milligrams of THC, marijuana's psychoactive ingredient. They also have to be distributed in child-resistant packaging with warning labels telling the user there may be a delay between eating a pot brownie or cookie and actually feeling its effects.
Of course, small children can't read warning labels — and child-resistant packaging is no guarantee that kids won't get their hands on pot candy. Even adults could accidentally ingest marijuana edibles if they have been taken out of their packaging, especially when marijuana-infused candy looks just like the benign kind.
That's what Colorado's latest attempt to regulate edibles hopes to change.
Starting Saturday, each individual serving of a recreational edible marijuana product will have to be stamped or embossed with a new symbol warning of cannabis — a diamond containing an exclamation point and the letters THC. Edibles produced for medical marijuana users, which can contain more THC per serving, will have their own version of the warning symbol, with an added letter M.
The warning symbol was a priority for Smart Colorado, a non-profit group dedicated to keeping kids safe as the state navigates the fallout of legal cannabis. Executive director Henny Lasley acknowledges that the new symbol will require some kind of effort to raise awareness of its meaning. She says she hopes parents and schools will start teaching kids about what the symbol means.
Making marijuana edibles unmistakable
Dan Anglin, president of Boulder, Colorado-based marijuana candy manufacturer Americanna, started putting the new warning labels on their packages well before the regulatory deadline.
Anglin described his choice as a smart business move — his products won't be at risk of being pulled off dispensary shelves for noncompliance — but he said it was also the right thing to do.
In fact, Americanna's treats are made in the distinctive shape of a cannabis leaf so there's no confusion about what kind of candy you're eating.
"A company that I used to own specialized in gummy bears and Sour Patch Kids and raspberry jellies and rainbow belts, and these were all the same exact products that you could walk into any convenience store and purchase," Anglin says. "We spent a long time saying that this isn't a real concern, but after a couple years of hearing these concerns I recognized that this was a true problem."
Even if Colorado's new warning symbol successfully makes marijuana edibles instantly recognizable to adults, Anglin firmly believes that keeping edibles away from kids is ultimately the responsibility of individual parents.
"It's just like your liquor cabinet," says Anglin. "You either lock it up or you keep it in a cabinet — and if you only keep it in a cabinet, you have to expect somebody who shouldn't get in there is going to get in there."