Photo via Denver Police Department's Facebook page
For potheads the world over, Colorado is a beacon of freedom. The first US state to tax and regulate marijuana serves as a symbolic Mecca and a working model for other pot-curious jurisdictions to follow when they finally decide to legalize it. Thus far, Colorado lawmakers and the local cannabis industry have cooperated with cool heads and the news from Colorado has been largely positive—tax revenue is up, enforcement costs are down, and the state is home to a booming new tourist market, and general enthusiasm among residents.
Despite these boons, and the perception of Colorado as a legal weed wonderland, a conflict continues to brew between Colorado’s pro-marijuana majority and a small but steadfast group who believe that legalization is spiraling out of control. The battle came to a head on Monday, when the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) recommended a ban on all edible marijuana products in the state, except for lozenges and tinctures. In a statement released by the CDPHE, cheif medical officer Larry Wolk said, “Edibles pose a definite risk to children, and that's why we recommended limiting marijuana-infused products.”
Won’t Somebody Please Think of the Children?
Their concern is not a new one. Since retail marijuana sales took effect in Colorado on January 1, consumers have shown an insatiable appetite for edibles, and they’ve become a significant part of the recreational marijuana market. More edibles means more incidents of accidental consumption, the most disturbing of which involve children. In 2013, the nonprofit Children’s Hospital Colorado saw eight patients who had consumed medical marijuana, and so far this year they’ve already seen 13.
“Most are toddlers,” Elizabeth Whitehead, a spokesperson for the hospital, told me over the phone. “Some can’t breathe and need to be intubated.” In most cases, the kids mistake cannabis-infused foods for the regular supermarket stuff they resemble. And who can blame them? Edibles look so much like regular candy products that Hershey’s just won a trademark infringement lawsuit against a Colorado edibles company for mimicking famous candy bars. Ahead of Halloween, the Denver Police Department released a video warning parents to beware the candy their kids are given while trick-or-treating. In the video, dispensary owner Patrick Johnson says, “There’s really no way for a child or a parent or even an expert in the field to tell you whether a product is infused or not.”
So why continue to make cannabis products look like real candy at all? Because now that we’ve started, we can’t go back. Mason Tvert, an outspoken advocate with Marijuana Policy Project and a key player in Colorado’s legalization movement, claims that reinstating any form of prohibition would be regressive. "Banning edible products is the quickest way to lose all control over them," he recently told the Huffington Post. "These products will continue to be in high demand, but banning them will ensure they are not properly labeled, packaged, or subject to health and safety standards."
The opposition isn’t buying it. “There are over 200 products now sold in Colorado, everything from chocolates, candies, soda, oils, butters, nuts, cookies, brownies, chex mix—the list goes on,” Rachel O’Bryan, a spokesperson for a group called Smart Colorado, told me. “The point of these products is to consume THC. If the type of food was important, then the food would be taking on a bigger role, but it doesn’t.” According to its website, Smart Colorado is “dedicated to minimizing the negative consequences of legalized marijuana.” The group strongly supports the ban on edibles, and this it successfully lobbied for packaging restrictions on edibles labeling to prevent accidental consumption. Those new rules go into effect next month, but the organization wants to see the CDPHE's recommended ban go through as well.
“Obviously, parents in Colorado are educating their children about [recreational marijuana products], but the industry is stacking the deck against us by putting it in candy,” O’Bryan said. She believes that continued resistance from cannabis business owners is inviting bolder attempts at restriction from the state government. “The industry seems to indicate they’re not really willing to budge, and that’s exactly why the health department did what they did—which is roughly to push them and nudge them and say, ‘If you can’t agree on clearly identifying the products, then we don’t need those products here.’”
As the state debated edibles reform early this week, mixed messages filled the air. Amid dispute over 11 separate proposals for edibles reform, cannabis business owners categorically rejected the CDPHE proposed ban on all edibles as a violation of Amendment 64, the state’s recreational weed law. The CDPHE responded by backing down, saying in press release, “The recommendation from CDPHE is just that, a recommendation to a working group as part of the deliberative process.” This battle is not over. With the advisory board reconvening for another circus of dysfunction in mid November—new rules would go into place by 2016—neither side is ready to back down.
“The people that are opposed to [legal cannabis] are as adamant in their beliefs as the people that are ostensibly involved in proving that this industry is viable and a good neighbor and not evil,” Chris Chiari of the Colorado branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), told me. The battle is one of perception. Those who believe cannabis is a medicine and a safe recreational alternative to alcohol don’t want to see the progress of legalization hampered by a new form of prohibition. Those who believe cannabis threatens the health of children opposed legalization, and now that it’s a reality they want to amend it to prevent harm.
“The will of the people at the ballot box allowed [legalization] to move forward, but certainly at the department of health, you have a number of state employees who may not share the enthusiasm for the will of the people,” Chiari said.
Battle of the Billboards
In spite of popular support for marijuana, critics point to three press-worthy incidents that challenge the safety of edibles—the edibles-related death of a man named Levy Thamba, the edibles-related murder of a woman named Kristine Kirk, and New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd’s lament about a negative experience on pot candy. Every pro-marijuana advocate I spoke with cited these as the biggest PR challenges to Colorado’s legal cannabis environment. A billboard by the advocacy group Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) in September made light of the Dowd incident directly, depicting a red-haired woman losing her shit in a hotel room under the line, “Don’t let a candy bar ruin your vacation.”
Photo via the Marijuana Policy Project's Facebook page
It’s part of a campaign called “Start low and go slow,” aiming to inform consumers that edible cannabis should be consumed in small doses and that you have to wait a while for the effects to kick in. Chiari tells me that from NORML’s perspective, this is the most effective approach to controlling edible consumption. In response to MPP’s ad, Smart Colorado rolled out a billboard of their own on Tuesday, asking, “Can you spot the pot?” It demonstrates the similarity between regular candy and edibles. According to a press release from the group, it’s part of “a long-term effort to ensure Coloradans are better informed.”
In spite of their disparate framing of the issue, both sides seem to have the same goal—keeping cannabis consumers informed about the dangers of edibles in order to avoid instances of overconsumption, which help no one. The cannabis industry doesn’t want the bad press, and the opposition wants to limit what it sees as a threat to public health. The desire to educate the public is shared by CDPHE, Smart Colorado, Colorado NORML, the cannabis industry, and even Children’s Hospital Colorado. But as long as the discourse is this tense, cooperation between the sides of the debate will remain difficult.
The new packaging regulations go through on November 1, and they include ten-milligram serving sizes and child-resistant packaging for edibles. Posturing aside, the cannabis industry has acquiesced to those changes and some are even angling their product toward pot novices. By contrast, CDPHE’s proposed ban on edibles has done little more than ruffle feathers and create an atmosphere of mistrust among the various parties. Voting to legalize was just the beginning.
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