The Trouble With Edibles: Is Edible Cannabis Too Strong for Safety, or Much Weaker Than Advertised?

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The scariest things to eat in America today seem to be cookies and chocolate bars. Fourteen children between the ages of 3 and 7 were admitted to the emergency room in Colorado last year after eating marijuana-laced goodies.

Just over a dozen hospital visits isn't as threatening as an Ebola epidemic, but it's almost double the eight stoned kids who showed up at the ER in 2012. It was also more than enough for anti-legalization coalition Smart Approaches to Marijuana to sound the alarm. “We need to stop many of these products from being sold,” SAM chairman Kevin Sabet, a former Obama drug policy bureaucrat, told Reuters.

In the Bay Area, local radio news leader KCBS jumped on the story. In San Mateo County, where cannabis dispensaries are banned, cops were quick to confirm that this “phenomena is hitting our emergency rooms.” San Mateo Police Chief Sue Manheimer did not present any data to back this up, but the available anecdotes were enough to convince her that “clearly [edibles] are not done in the auspices of public health.”

Reefer madness has a new name. And it is edibles.

It was a rough 2014 for edible marijuana, the preferred method of medicating for many seniors and other people who don't have the option to smoke weed (and the only method most “respectable” physicians will accept).

Authorities linked edibles to two deaths last year: a college student who jumped off a hotel balcony after eating a cookie, and a man who shot and killed his wife after eating THC-infused candy (it was later revealed that the couple had been fighting for weeks; in court, the man's attorney used his weed intake as a defense, saying it had rendered him incapable of pulling the trigger). However, the biggest splash came when New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd published her account of an unseemly encounter with a cannabis chocolate bar. Unimpressed with the initial effects, Dowd made a rookie mistake: She ate too much, too quickly. In the ensuing all-night ordeal, Dowd thought “I had died and no one was telling me.”

Edibles are no joke. They can bend the minds of the cannabis plant's most devoted fans. Only a handful of people, alive or dead, can outdo Snoop Dogg in a smoke session. Willie Nelson is one of them. “That's the only motherfucker that ever smoked me out where I had to say, 'Time out,'” the rapper told San Francisco's own Berner during a 2013 episode of Snoop's blunted-out Web series GGN. “He's a real player.” And Nelson cannot handle edibles. “I don't enjoy the high that the body gets,” he told Dowd last year, describing the feeling after he ate a plate of pot cookies for the hell of it as if “the flesh was falling off my bones.”

The only man in the world who has out-smoked Snoop Dogg thinks edibles are too much. No wonder Dowd lost her mind.

Edibles are a problem for local cannabis connoisseurs, too, but for a very different reason: They're not strong enough. Specifically, they're not as strong as advertised. All of the top-shelf cookies, candies, and other treats entered in the San Francisco Patients Choice Cup in November tested well below their advertised THC content in lab results. For example, noted brand Bhang's triple-strength chocolate bars, advertised at 180 milligrams of THC — roughly the same amount of psychoactive punch in an entire gram of dispensary-bought bud — clocked in at “only” 127.2 milligrams.

The root cause of the edible problem, cops and prohibitionists say, is that they are unregulated. This is partially true. No government agency inspects edibles for quality or potency. The same is true with everything else sold in dispensaries, though nearly every cannabis store has its medicine lab-­checked for potency and contaminants, a rare instance in which market forces led to regulation.

But there are some rules. Under San Francisco law, edibles must be sold in opaque packaging in order to discourage children from confusing a store­-bought cannabis cookie for a Chips Ahoy. An edible's packaging must be clearly marked “medicine” and must have warning labels telling kids to stay away. In other words, in San Francisco at least, packaging and labels for edibles receive more scrutiny than the psychoactive drugs inside.

But the most important number here is zero. That's how many people have died from cannabis consumption in recorded history. Meanwhile, 300 people died of a drug overdose last year in California. And if recent trends hold steady, another 300 will die this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. This deadly trend warranted only a brief write-up in the Chronicle, because the drug in question is alcohol.

More than 2,200 people visited the San Francisco General Hospital emergency room for acute alcohol toxicity or for alcohol withdrawal, hospital spokeswoman Rachael Kagan said. Alcohol is the second-most cited reason for an ER visit in the city, she said.

Cannabis doesn't even make the list.

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