The Colorado Marijuana Industry's Potency Problem
Is the state's weed too strong for tourists?
Photo via Flickr user MattysFlicks
Last week, a 62-year-old woman visited Colorado, bought some marijuana candy, ate it in her hotel room, got way too high as a result, and penned an account of the experience that captivated the nation, or at least the part of the nation that spends too much time giggling on Twitter.
“I felt a scary shudder go through my body and brain. I barely made it from the desk to the bed, where I lay curled up in a hallucinatory state for the next eight hours,” Maureen Dowd, the New York Times columnist and spiritual descendant of Hunter S. Thompson, wrote on June 3. “As my paranoia deepened, I became convinced that I had died and no one was telling me.”
The immediate response to Dowd’s bad trip was a shudder of not-undeserved gleeful cackling. “She largely suffered her fate due to an overdose of stupidity,” wrote VICE’s David Bienenstock, who scoffed at the columnist for apparently not doing any “research regarding a proper dosage of THC for a novice user, the amount of time the drug will take before you begin to feel its effects, or even the overall potency of the product she selected.”
Though Dowd did get warned that THC-infused edibles can really fuck you up if you can’t handle your bud (though probably not in those words), she “was focused more on the fun than the risks,” according to a statement she wrote in response to the post-column brouhaha. “In that sense, I’m probably like many other people descending on Denver.”
The longtime Times writer may be such a weed neophyte that she doesn’t know how to roll a joint, but she’s not wrong that the new regime in Colorado makes it easy for newbies to overdo it and end up tweaking out. The emerging legal weed industry in the state is still in an odd, transitional stage, and it can be downright unfriendly to casual tourists like Dowd who want to try this “marijuana” thing everyone seems to be talking about.
For starters, the bud sold in the state is the most powerful weed anyone has ever smoked. Pot potency has increased dramatically over the past two decades: According to Todd Ellison, the CEO of Weed Media, a Colorado-based marketing company, weed in the 70s contained about 14 or 15 percent THC, whereas today an average strain in Colorado will be 24 or 26 percent.
“Because of the environment you've created here, a lot of people have high tolerances,” Ellison told me over the phone. As it's the heavy users who buy the most pot, many dispensaries cater to these ounce-a-week connoisseurs by selling the most powerful weed they can get their hands on.
"Edibles are in the same environment,” added Ellison.“Because we've created these people with these high tolerances, we've also created the environment where 15 to 25 milligrams [of THC] is really not enough to break the ice for a lot of people."
This increase is potency is great for medical marijuana patients who need a strong dose to relieve their aches and pains and for proud potheads who smoke the most primo of the primo shit—but it’s bad news for out-of-staters who can’t toke like a Coloradan.
Statistics on people who’ve lost their shit after smoking some chronic or overdoing it on the edibles are understandably hard to come by, but there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting not everyone can handle the THC-heavy products sold in many Colorado dispensaries. “Some hospital officials say they are treating growing numbers of children and adults sickened by potent doses of edible marijuana,” reported the New York Times in a recent article about the downsides of legalization in Colorado. And there have been a couple high-profile tragedies linked to edibles, including the time an African exchange student named Levy Thamba Pongi jumped off a balcony and died after eating a pot cookie that was much, much too strong for him.
You can blame the tourists themselves, if you like, for being uneducated or incautious about the drug they’re putting in their bodies, but some freak-outs are the result of marijuana merchants not properly informing their customers about what they’re getting themselves into. A couple weeks ago a friend of mine vacationing in Colorado bought two mints that each contained 30 milligrams of THC and was told at the dispensary that 25 mg was a standard dose. Though she is no more a stoner than Dowd, she naturally figured that she could handle a “standard dose” and ate the mints with her husband. For two hours, nothing happened. Then everything went to hell. As she later told me in a Facebook message:
I had the sensation that my life was running on two parallel tracks that were growing further and further apart with each passing second: On the inner orbit, where I was, everything was moving very slowly, and the outer orbit, which I could both see and feel just beyond [my husband], was populated with the faces and voices and activities of everyone I’d ever met and was a great, gibbering mass that moved at lightning speed past us in a deep, blue vortex.
I was certain we were going to die; I was certain something terrible was going to happen; I was certain I wasn’t going to be the same in the morning, that I would almost certainly be institutionalized because my mind was breaking.
Some marijuana brownies. Photo via Flickr user Dank Depot
The marijuana industry has given the state of Colorado $17.9 million in taxes and fees since January, and full legalization is also a boon for families of extremely sick children looking for non-psychoactive cannabis-derived medicine. But as great as legal recreational weed is, there are still some kinks in the system to be worked out, as even insiders and stoners will admit.
Edibles, which are particularly popular among tourists, often don’t contain the THC concentrations listed on their packaging. And the general trend toward making marijuana products as powerful as possible has made it more likely that first-timers like my friend and Dowd will have themselves a bad day.
“Are the edibles too strong? Yes,” VICE weed columnist T. Kid wrote in Paper magazine this week. “When you consume a lot of weed regularly, you lose track of how little it might take to ruin a novice's evening. A cookie probably shouldn't have six regular doses in it because, seriously, who the fuck eats a sixth of a cookie?”
In all likelihood, growers will find ways to make their crops even more potent in the future, and the THC-hungry crowd that makes use of intense techniques like dabbing will embrace the chance to get higher than ever before. But as the industry grows and more states fully legalize weed—pretty much a foregone conclusion at this point—chances are the pot industry will start to resemble other businesses. Edible makers will find a way to be more consistent with the amount of THC they include in each batch, and just as the most popular beers today are lighter lagers that go down easy and don’t get you too fucked up, a market will emerge for what Ellison has called “mid-grade” weed—a type of bud that's not high in THC but will be easy to grow in massive quantities and won’t give anyone the Fear. In other words, this fake article about Phillip Morris coming out with marijuana cigarettes will become a reality.
In the meantime, Ellison said, the edibles industry is reacting to the bad publicity it’s received lately by, for instance, selling six-packs of chocolate truffles where each one contains a single dose. Dispensaries should make it clear to the tourists that they shouldn’t be screwing around with the hard stuff, he added.
"I believe that the tourists should get the lesser grade [weed] that won't blow their minds right away,” Ellison told me. “Or be given the option to understand that 'here is the good stuff. And here—it's expensive, it's hard to get, it's limited in quantity—but here is the really, really, really potent Colorado-native stuff.' That would be a good paradigm."
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