Nfld. & Labrador

What lessons can N.L. learn about cannabis legalization from Colorado?

Youth usage remained relatively stable, but they now see marijuana as less risky.

State unprepared for edibles, which caused a few 'high-profile' deaths early, says chief public health officer

With recreational marijuana legalization looming, Colorado's experience offers some lessons for Newfoundland and Labrador. (CBC)

As Newfoundland and Labrador prepares for Wednesday's legalization of cannabis, public health officials in Colorado — where marijuana was legalized for sale in 2014 — say the state's experience can provide some lessons for Canada.

Dr. Tista Ghosh, interim chief medical officer of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said the state's legalization plans prompted the state government to monitor health behaviours and effects more closely.

"So, for example, who's using marijuana? Are they underage? Are people significantly more likely to use now that it's legal? So we've been monitoring those types of statistics," Ghosh said.

Youth usage relatively stable

Colorado has also been monitoring more vulnerable populations like pregnant women and children, she said — groups that might be more affected by the legalization and more widespread availability of marijuana.

Ghosh said she thought Colorado's legalization in 2014 would change usage patterns, but what they found was youth usage has been relatively stable.

People were overusing, and we had a couple of episodes where people became psychotic, jumped out a window, that kind of thing.- Tista Ghosh, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment

"What we have noted is that youth have a lower perception of risk related to marijuana, meaning they think it's less risky than they once did, which, you know, could translate to greater use at some point. So that's something we continue to watch," she said.

Ghosh added that she didn't see a huge increase in usage in adults, until this past year where she saw a "slight uptick" mostly among 18 to 25 year olds.

There were problems the state didn't anticipate, said Ghosh, such as just how many edible products would be on the market.

"Initially we actually had high-profile deaths that were related to edible products."

Colorado didn't anticipate the number of cannabis edibles on the market after legalization, says Dr. Tista Ghosh. (P. Solomon Banda/The Associated Press)

Ghosh said the problems were because the effects of edibles are delayed — taking up to an hour to have effect.

"You might try one candy and think, 'Oh, this isn't working, I'm going to have another one,'" said Ghosh.

"People were overusing and we had a couple of episodes where people became psychotic, paranoid, jumped out a window, that kind of thing."

That prompted public health officials to take a closer look at setting limits on how much THC — cannabis's main psychoactive ingredient — could be in edible products, how they were labelled and realistic serving sizes.

"We changed labelling laws to require that there needed to be sort of demarcation as to what a serving size was, and it had to be in a commonly identified serving size and that there couldn't be more than 10 milligrams of THC in each serving," she said.

Lower legal age in N.L.

The legal age to use marijuana in Colorado is 21 — same as the legal drinking age, and two years older than Newfoundland and Labrador's 19.

"But there is research saying that it can harmfully affect your brain up to age 25, and so the scientific literature more supports an older age. But certainly, you know, governments are trying to create a new legal product, and I can understand why they would choose to mirror alcohol policy," said Ghosh.

Hospitalizations 'negligible' compared with alcohol

There has been an increase in hospitalizations and poison centre calls related to marijuana, she said.

"A lot of that is panic attacks or overuse, and actually we've seen a greater increase in hospitalizations among tourists who are visiting the state," she said.

But although the hospitalization rate has gone up, it's still "negligible" compared with alcohol-related hospitalizations, Ghosh said.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador