Wednesday, June 4, 2014
As you may have seen by now, Maureen Dowd went to Colorado, ate a marijuana candy, and had a very bad experience.
HuffingtonPost has chronicled some of the reaction from twitter to Dowd's column. For the most part, it hasn't been kind. Gawker jokes, for example, that the column tells us Dowd is a "a really paranoid stoner." The reaction is not surprising. As the BBC put it, "[t]here's just something so tempting about imagining straight-laced paper-of-record columnists high as kites."
But the issues raised by Dowd's experience with marijuana edibles are real. And they are nothing to joke about.
On a policy level, one of the key selling points of legalization is the ability to regulate the market. Regulation brings many benefits (no more violent black market, the collection of taxes, and so on.). One of these benefits is that regulation can help to make sure users know what they are getting as far as quantity, quality, etc. Regulations can (and should) make it possible to use a substance more safely than under a prohibition model.
When it comes to edibles, I think it's fair to say that Colorado's regulations aren't really achieving that goal--at least not for a key segment of users (inexperienced users and/or users from out of state.)
Here's the problem: Colorado permits 100mg of marijuana in a candy but says that 10mg is a single serving size. In other words, a tiny piece of chocolate or single gummy bear might have 10 servings of marijuana in it.
This is, quite frankly, crazy. Why? Because it is entirely inconsistent with how people are used to consuming other intoxicants (like alcohol) and other candies (like, well, any candy you've ever purchased.)
When it comes to alcohol, people are used to ordering a beer, a mixed drink, or a glass of wine (or maybe a bottle to share over dinner). One glass might produce a buzz, but it will take more than that (for almost all users) to become intoxicated. From that experience, it's natural that many people are going to assume--regardless of the fine print--that one candy is going to be rougly similar to one drnk. These people will think: "Drink one glass of wine, achieve a mild buzz. Eat one gummy, achieve a mild buzz." Instead, people are eating one gummy and feeling like they're getting thrown through the doors of perception.
Similarly, when it comes to candy, people are used to eating a single Bon-Bon, gummy bear, or even full candy bar, all at once. (Often, when it comes to Bon-Bons and gummies, people will eat a few at a time.) The idea that you would eat only part of a chocolate truffle or a gummy--whether it be 1/10 or 1/2--is ridiculous.
So, personally, I'm quite sympathetic when Dowd writes that the "caramel-chocolate flavored candy bar looked so innocent, like the Sky Bars I used to love as a child." This is how many average people are going to view the product--based on their past experiences eating candies and consuming alcohol.
I understand the argument that when people make assumptions, they are assuming the risk that they're wrong. But the fact is that regulators decide the dosage levels and there's no good reason for these levels to be wildly inconsistent with the expectations of novice users.
Sure, if candies are limited to 10mg per candy, a strong user might have to eat 10 or 20 gummies to get the desired effect. But I think that is a small price to pay to make sure that the novice or occasional user does not end up having an unexpectedly terrible experience.
This dynamic also has important implications for the politics of marijuana legalization. People don't like feeling as though they voted for one thing and got something else entirely. And I don't think the average voter anticipated there would be bite-sized candies containing 10 servings of marijuana each when they voted for legalization.
The more out-of-state visitors and casual users that have bad experiences like Dowd's, the greater the potential for a backlash on legalization. These people will (mistakenly, but perhaps understandly) become skeptical that legalization actually means regulation and control.
Of course, legalization does mean regulation and control. And that's why the problems with edibles can be fixed relatively easily in a legalization regime. It's just a matter of adjusting the serving sizes and labels to better conform with people's expectations and better inform novice users. (In a world of prohibition, by contrast, nothing is labeled and users have no way of knowing what they're getting.)
Thankfully, Colorado is already at work on this very thing. A few weeks ago, Gov. Hickenlooper signed a bill for a study into edibles, with an eye toward updating regulations later this year. Personally, I think these changes can't come soon enough. Until then, we can expect to be seeing more stories like Dowd's.