Colorado is building a reputation as the national laboratory for getting marijuana mostly right, and the edible side of the industry is no exception. However, edibles present their own set of challenges from the regulatory perspective. Challenges range from the agricultural to the pharmaceutical to child safety. “Mostly right, most of the time on marijuana” is never going to make it as a bumper sticker, but it is good enough for government work.
Food Safety for Edibles
Unless you make cookies yourself or they come warm from your mom’s oven, you would probably prefer them to come from a kitchen that has been inspected by the health department. In Colorado, the commercial kitchens that make marijuana edibles are subject to the same standards and inspections as other food establishments. They also receive notices of violation at about the same rate, largely for things such as inadequate hand washing facilities and food temperature control. The latter has been an issue lately with respect to marijuana-infused oils that carry a risk for botulinum contamination if not stored at or below 41 degrees.
Edibles existed long before legalization and some techniques, such as using a washing machine to make water hash will not pass muster in commercial food preparation. Of course, neither would burying a Dutch oven in a hot-coal lined hole to make baked beans. (The secret is in the tire chains.) This is just an issue of a maturing industry.
Marijuana is Colorado’s fourth largest cash crop, but growing conditions are largely self-regulated. With indoor cultivation and drying processes, marijuana can be particularly vulnerable to mold and mildew contamination. Some methods of concentrating oils use butane, which may linger in trace amounts. Not until the end of the year is mandatory testing expected to begin for contaminants such as E. coli, salmonella, aspergillus, other fungi, heavy metals and solvents. No testing will be required for the presence of pesticides in marijuana edibles, which is disturbing.
Product consistency is remarkably difficult to achieve with the raw plant material. Different strains, different plants of the same strain and different parts of the same plant may vary wildly in THC content. It is somewhat easier to achieve consistency with oils and infusions. Potency testing has been required in Colorado since the spring, but the focus has been on THC and not on other active ingredients. Cannabidiol, TetraHydroCannabiVarin, terpeolds and flavonolds, among others, may also have medical applications. The testing is possible, and more comprehensive information might be useful to consumers.
This is where the greatest attention seems to have focused since two recent deaths linked to edibles and Maureen Dowd’s less-than-excellent adventure. Overdoses although not fatal in and of themselves, can be highly unpleasant and may be more likely because the high is delayed when the cannabis-infused product is eaten, rather than inhaled. In Colorado, individually packaged products must not exceed 100 milligrams of THC. The recommended dose, especially for those new to edibles, is one-tenth of that. Some edible manufacturers have taken to measures such as scoring candy bars into recommended dosages. Retailers have also embraced the challenge of warning buyers to approach edibles cautiously.
Sweet treats and children go together in many people’s minds, especially children’s. Not so with marijuana edibles, though. Colorado regulations require that marijuana edibles be sold in opaque, child-resistant packaging. Once the edible is out of the store, however, regulation is up to the parent. Sensible measures include keeping them out of reach, out of sight and impossible to confuse with kid-friendly treats.
Colorado’s experiment with recreational marijuana, including edibles, is barely eight months old, and it is clearly a work in progress. Sure, tax revenues are a little shorter than once anticipated, and the black-market still exists, but reefer madness has not ensued. All in all, the regulation of the industry looks about right, and other states eyeing full legalization can clearly take heart.