The young woman was shocked when the addiction-treatment clinic’s drug test showed extraordinary levels of THC in her system. She knew she had a drug problem. But she wasn’t like those acquaintances who sat around smoking pipes, bongs and joints all day.
“We asked how she could have had such an extremely high level of THC in her system,” explained Joanie Lewis, founder of Insight Services, an outpatient addictions treatment facility in Colorado Springs. “We learned her parents were preparing almost all of their food in a marijuana butter. You got the feeling they didn’t really consider it drug abuse. But her level of intoxication was much higher than if she had been a traditional user who sat down and smoked pot several times a day. The impairment crept up on her slowly but profoundly. This kind of thing may be why we’re seeing more impairment, more addiction and more serious withdrawals.”
The proliferation of foods infused or coated with THC has become a growing concern, even among some marijuana advocates. Several high-profile marijuana crimes and deaths involve consumption of edible THC products.
“When THC is available in food, it’s even harder for people to see it as a drug,” Lewis said. “But it is a drug. It is a depressant, a hallucinogen and an addictive substance that changes chemistry in the brain. Research shows all of the above.”
Given the United States’ hard-fought and continuing battles against tobacco and illness caused by its use, Americans would rebuff sales of lemon drops, cookies and soda pops infused with nicotine. Yet, the marijuana industry — quickly emerging as Big Tobacco 2.0 — infuses child-friendly snacks and drinks with doses of mind- altering and brain-damaging THC up to 50 times stronger than 1960s-era pot.
“Practically nobody had even heard of THC concentrates until after Colorado voted to legalize marijuana, and, honestly, this state had no idea what it was unleashing before it made that decision,” said Dr. Ken Finn, a Colorado Springs physician who is board certified in pain medicine. “Even today, a lot of people don’t seem to understand how potent and addictive this drug is or how easily it is concealed.”
When voters enacted Amendment 64, which sanctioned marijuana for recreational use, many did not envision a cookie more potent than dozens of Woodstock joints. Concealed in Amendment 64’s definitions of “marijuana” and “marihuana” is the phrase “marihuana concentrate.” It means the law allows sale, transport, possession and use of up to one1 ounce of leafy marijuana. It also means one 1 ounce of any form of THC concentrate, which can compare to 50 ounces or more of traditional pot that is smoked.
“I would appreciate it very much if people would send me links to news stories or government-sponsored communications explaining the THC levels that were established by Amendment 64,” Dr. Christian Thurstone, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado who treats adolescent addiction and serves on the board of Safe Approaches to Marijuana, wrote on his website in February 2013. “I am unaware of any attempt of this nature to educate the public before Election Day, Nov. 6, 2012.”
Now the threats THC concentrates pose to public health and safety loom large. A new study from researchers at Ohio’s Nationwide Children’s Hospital finds more American children are exposed to marijuana before reaching their fifth birthday. The report, published in the peer-reviewed journal Clinical Pediatrics, found that between 2006 and 2013, the marijuana exposure rate rose 147.5 percent among children age 5 and under. In that same period, the rate rose nearly 610 percent in states that sanctioned medical marijuana before 2000, the year Colorado followed suit.
While consequences of most exposures reportedly were minor, the study’s researchers found 17 marijuana-exposed children fell comatose and 10 had seizures.
In Colorado, the number of exposures to THC-infused edibles in young children increased fourfold in one year, from 19 cases in 2013 to 95 in 2014, according to the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center.
Experts overwhelmingly attribute spikes in marijuana exposure among children to THC-infused “edibles.” The drug-laced food is the most promising aspect of Big Marijuana’s economic future. Edibles make up about 45 percent of Colorado’s marijuana sales, based on state figures, and are projected to quickly surpass the sale of THC products that are smoked.
Advocates for edibles say the products provide a healthy alternative to inhaling smoke. Others go further, marketing drug-infused foods and drinks as health food.
“Here comes the Whole Foods- ification of Marijuana,” states the headline for a story published by Fast Company, a news organization founded by former editors of Harvard Business Review, touting its focus on “ethical economics.” . The report describes the author’s experience with ordering front-door delivery of a jar of “organic, sun-grown marijuana from farmers Casey and Amber in Mendocino, Calif.”
“There’s a whole industry being built around the upscale branding of weed,” author Ariel Schwartz explains. “Marijuana is now something that should be organic, grown by friendly farmers…”
For marijuana sellers, edibles mean a potentially boundless market share. “Edibles are the future of the industry due to their familiarity,” explains an article on a website that markets “The Stoner’s Cookbook.” “Non-smokers are not inclined to medicate with a joint, but an infused cookie is something familiar that they’re comfortable ingesting.”
Indeed, THC-infused foods and drinks — all fashioned from marijuana the state doesn’t yet test for contaminants — are sold in hundreds of store-front establishments throughout the state. They are shared and traded on the campuses of middle schools and high schools, where young users with developing brains are especially susceptible to addiction. They are stowed in lunch boxes in the workplace.
Employers, law enforcement officials, educators and addiction treatment providers say Colorado has cooked up a poorly regulated THC-food fiasco that crisscrosses the country with the ease of exporting gummy bears in glove compartments, pockets and handbags. For taxpayers, the growing edibles market means an array of social costs — including hospitalizations, traffic accidents, school dropouts and lost work productivity — that state and federal officials haven’t fully investigated, estimated and made public.
Known as hash oil, wax, dabs, and shatter, concentrates deliver a high so fast and intense many users refer to them as “green crack.” One ounce of the highest potency THC concentrate can yield 560 average tokes on an electronic cigarette. In edibles, Colorado law defines an average serving of THC as 10 milligrams.
“That average serving size? That’s a political number, not anything rooted in real, reputable science,” said Kevin Sabet, a former senior White House drug policy advisoer and co-founder of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, an organization opposed to marijuana legalization and supported by several of the country’s top addiction treatment experts.
The 10-milligram serving size established by Colorado lawmakers means one1 ounce of high-potency THC oil — the amount one adult is allowed to buy or possess at any given time — also can equal 2,800 average servings. That’s a well-stocked bakery.
“I don’t need scientific evidence to show me that students are completely zoned out and that more stoned kids are showing up for class,” said Kelly Landen, a high school teacher in Denver. “If they’ve smoked marijuana, you smell it on them. But students also show up with candy and cookies and whatever … and there’s no way to know for certain what’s in that food. They could be eating (THC) right in front of me.”
Unregulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, concentrated THC is practically undetectable. There is no pill. Unlike alcohol and cigarettes, there is no smell. Users can get high on food and beverages while hiding in plain sight in almost any location.
“There is great danger in how easy these food products are to conceal,” said Frank Szachta, director of The Cornerstone Program, an adolescent addiction treatment center in Centennial. “Someone could do this drug in front of you, or in front of a teacher, in front of the boss. … No one would have to know.”
Colorado legislators have grappled with the problem of people — particularly children and adolescents — consuming marijuana in common snacks that land them in emergency rooms with panic attacks and hallucinations. Authorities have linked at least three deaths in Colorado, including a murder, to excessive consumption of THC-laced foods.
When ingested through the stomach, the user may not experience effects for an hour or more. The delayed effect is blamed in part for new users becoming impatient and eating too much.
“Like a bottle of vodka, you can’t just drink the entire bottle. You have to take it slow and understand what you’re doing,” said Julie Berliner in a YouTube video. She’s the founder of Sweet Grass Kitchen, an edibles manufacturing company in Denver.
But edibles are not like a bottle of vodka in important ways. The vodka’s contents are exactly known, and drinks can be measured precisely. The label on a THC-infused brownie or candy bar might state “servings per package: 10,” but the maker can’t say whether the consumer will ingest all of those servings in one small bite. The folly is akin to cutting a cupcake into tenths and presuming each piece contains exactly one serving of vanilla extract.
Making matters worse, said Lewis of Insight Services, is that many people are not inclined to follow recommended serving sizes.
“The state says a serving size is 10 milligrams, so that’s how much THC you might find in one small piece of candy,” she said. “But very few people sit down with a bag of candy and eat only one piece.”
State lawmakers’ efforts to regulate edibles and their packaging have done little to stop accidental overdoses and deter underage use — in part because they haven’t applied to homemade goods infused with THC, health professionals say. State law also is undermined when someone removes the contents of a package and stores the THC-infused food in a bowl, jar or other container.
A law enacted in 2014 instructs the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment to devise standards and procedures that will make unpackaged, commercial food products easily stand out if they contain THC. It’s a tall order when dealing with small pieces of food — such as crumbs of granola — and the agency continues to grasping for a solution.
Since legalization and the mass marketing of highly potent, THC foods began, Colorado addiction treatment providers have reported increasing levels of toxicity among clients, more severe addiction and poorer prognoses for recovery from substance use disorders.
For example, the average level of THC found in the urine of about 5,000 adolescents ages 13-19 by researchers at the University of Colorado jumped from 358 nanograms per milliliter in 2007 through 2009 — just before the state’s boom in medical marijuana dispensaries — to 536 milliliters from 2010 through 2013.
The rapidly widening scope of THC-infused food is shaping up to be a recipe for great losses for individuals, families and the entire state, Lewis said.
“People are coming to us later in the addiction cycle than they used to,” she said. “When people get high on food, there is the perception that they’re not really using a drug. It seems less harmful than taking pills or smoking. By the time they realize there’s a problem, some of them are quite a ways further into the addiction than if they had been smoking it.”