DENVER — The Mile High City was jammed with pot revelers Sunday for the annual 4/20 festival, but the mood was far from celebratory Monday as state legislators moved to tighten rules on marijuana products in the wake of two tragic deaths.
The Colorado House passed unanimously bills to set possession limits for concentrated forms of marijuana such as hash oil, and to make cookies, candy and other foods infused with pot more easily identifiable.
The votes came after what are believed to be the state’s first marijuana-related deaths — both involving sweet treats infused with marijuana — since Colorado unveiled the nation’s first recreational pot for adults in January.
University of Wyoming student Levy Thamba Pongi, 19, jumped to his death from a fourth-floor hotel balcony March 11 after eating a marijuana-laced cookie purchased by a friend. He and his friends had come to Denver over spring break to check out the city’s pot culture.
Last week, Richard Kirk, 47, was charged with murdering his wife Kristine Kirk as she made a frantic 911 call, telling the operator that he was “totally hallucinating.” Court documents said that he had consumed marijuana candy and prescription pain medicine before shooting his wife in the head.
While marijuana isn’t generally associated with vivid hallucinations, a 2012 study by King’s College in London researchers found the psychoactive ingredients in marijuana can induce psychosis-like symptoms.
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“Many people are surprised to learn that marijuana intoxication results in about 450,000 emergency room admissions a year,” said Kevin Sabet, executive director of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, in a statement. “A psychotic break is not so uncommon among this population. Meanwhile, commercialized e-marijuana cigarettes, vaporizers, edibles and attractive candies are the status quo in multiple states.”
Marijuana advocates have responded by ramping up their public-information campaign, issuing warnings before and during the 4/20 festival for those who consume edibles to “read the labels, go slow, and ask questions.”
“Depending on your body type, edibles can take up to two hours to fully take effect. Be careful; start with a single 10 mg serving or less, and don’t take more until you wait at least two hours. Most importantly, keep edibles far away from children and pets,” said Michael Elliott, executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group, in a statement.
The bills were introduced after the student’s death, and neither directly addresses the circumstances surrounding them.
But Colorado lawmakers are continuing to tweak regulations concerning the legalized pot market, launched Jan. 1 after voters legalized recreational marijuana for adults in 2012. Washington is expected to open its first recreational marijuana shops in June.
The Marijuana Industry Group issued a statement supporting the bill limiting the amount of concentrate that can be sold, saying it will “help stop illicit diversion by limiting the amount of concentrate sold to a single individual.”
But industry officials aren’t thrilled with the edibles bill, which will require the state Department of Revenue to adopt rules by Jan. 1, 2016, that require edible retail pot products “to be shaped, stamped, colored, or otherwise marked with a standard symbol indicating that it contains marijuana and is not for consumption by children.”
During a committee hearing, proponents brought paper cups with pot-infused gummy bears and other candies that looked like the real thing. Each piece may contain up to 10 mg of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.
“If you can’t tell the difference, how could a three-year-old?” said Republican state Rep. Frank McNulty.
Dan Anglin, managing partner of Edipure Brands, countered at another hearing with his own show-and-tell: containers of liquid that looked like apple juice, lemonade and water, but were in fact alcoholic beverages and bleach.
His point: That many food and drink items look like something else when they’re not in their proper packages, and that Colorado’s recreational pot edibles meet international child-resistant packaging standards.
Mr. Anglin also noted that the edibles bill would not have changed the outcome in the two deaths, noting that the 19-year-old who jumped off the balcony didn’t consume the cookie accidentally and was too young to have consumed it legally. The age cut-off for purchasing or using recreational pot in Colorado is 21.
He also had a suggestion: “Why don’t we just put a pot leaf on the label?”
Still, state legislators said they were concerned by testimony from Children’s Hospital Dr. Michael DiStefano, who said that seven children had been treated since January for symptoms related to marijuana intake. Between 2005 and 2013, that number was six.
“It’s not just about your product, it’s about keeping our public safe and keeping these products out of the hands of kids,” said Democratic state Rep. Rhonda Fields. “Because at this point, we are seeing trends, and as an elected official, I have a responsibility to make sure that the things that I do are to support good public policy as it relates to public safety.”