California’s next public health crisis is four months away.
On Jan. 1, 2018, thanks to the passage last year of Proposition 64, the 24 million adults who live in the Golden State will be able to legally consume recreational marijuana – a massive market compared with the 1.5 million or so current users of medical marijuana in California. And though that may sound like one big party waiting to happen, buyer beware.
While businesses are geared up to sell all manner of pot – from edibles to smokables to drinkables – the state’s regulatory regime is woefully lagging. The result is that a wide variety of products soon to become available to consumers don’t lend themselves to responsible consumption, even for the most well-intentioned users.
You don’t have to munch down ‘The Elvis’ or swig a bottle of pot lemonade to find yourself in danger. Yet a lobbying effort is underway in Sacramento to neuter marijuana regulations.
This isn’t to say that the California Bureau of Medical Cannabis Regulation still can’t fix things. But if the last 20 years of largely unregulated medical marijuana is any indication of what’s to come, we should be greatly concerned.
I say all of this not as some sort of “Just Say No” finger-wagger. I voted for Prop. 64 and see myriad virtues in allowing recreational marijuana use. Among them: keeping low-level offenders, especially in minority communities, out of the criminal justice system; increasing tax revenues and business opportunities; and affording Californians greater personal liberties.
The trouble is that many of the pot-based products ready to roll out in January will invariably be snapped up by millions of new consumers, many of whom are likely to have little idea of what they’re getting into.
Consider, for example, some of the tetrahydrocannabinol-infused lemonade available in medical marijuana dispensaries, which contain 200 or more mg of THC – the chemical compound in pot that makes you high. That is enough to send folks to the emergency room with hallucinations, extreme paranoia and a panic attack.
Or take “The Elvis,” a standard sized peanut butter cookie that contains a whopping 1,000 mg of THC – when the typical “recommended dose” for a naïve user is 10 mg. If someone inadvertently ate this cookie it would be the equivalent of smoking 50 high THC joints in one sitting, with effects that hit you an hour later.
Think this sounds farfetched? A friend of mine who has a sweet tooth recently picked up his son’s teammates to drive them to little league baseball practice. He nabbed a few cookies sitting on the counter at the kid’s house and ran out the door.
An hour later he was being hauled off the baseball field to the emergency room because he thought he was having a heart attack. He called his wife to say he thought he was dying and said goodbye to his son. The cookies were laced with THC. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to realize what would have happened if he had eaten the cookies an hour before he went to drive the kids to baseball practice. He survived, of course, but was left with an experience that changed his life.
Prop. 64 states that marijuana products shouldn’t be “appealing to children or easily confused with commercially sold candy or foods” and are not to exceed 10 mg of THC per serving. The California Department of Health went so far as to issue a recommendation that each marijuana edible or package limit the THC level to 100 mg. But the way the law and the recommendation are worded leaves plenty of wiggle room for the industry to get around the limits, and a lobbying effort is underway in Sacramento to neuter these marijuana regulations.
Meanwhile, you don’t have to munch down “The Elvis” or swig a bottle of pot lemonade to find yourself in danger. For those who last took a hit of weed when they were in college in the 1980s, you’d be accustomed to puffing on 4 percent THC by weight. The current norm is about 20 percent.
To put this in familiar terms, it’s as if you were sitting down at a bar and asked for a 12 ounce Busch Light (4.1 percent alcohol) but the bartender actually poured you 12 ounces of Malibu Rum (21 percent alcohol).
Other factors – including where in the plant that the buds you’re smoking come from, how much food is in your stomach, and whether you take a short puff or inhale deeply – can all have a drastic effect on how stoned you become. And many of those who get too stoned will surely wind up in the emergency room.
Indeed, it’s no surprise the annual number of cannabis related emergency room visits in a Colorado hospital system more than quadrupled since the advent of broadly accessible medical marijuana legalization, from 146 in 2005 to 639 in 2014.
All of this demands a big public health campaign, delivered clearly and respectfully (no stigmatizing here, please), explaining how the things that people are putting into their bodies can affect them. It’s also up to all of us to make sure that our our state and local politicians and regulators hold businesses to the letter of the law on standard doses and maximum THC amounts in marijuana products.
And we need to be vigilant that industry doesn’t water down the rules. In fact, they should be strengthened.
Either that, or many of us are going to end up with a post-pot experience far worse than a bad case of the munchies.
Brad Rowe is the chief executive of BOTEC Analysis, a public policy consulting firm, and a lecturer at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs. He can be reached at email@example.com.