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Rocky Mountain High or Reefer Madness? Legal Pot Comes with Risks

| April 13, 2014


I walked through clouds of marijuana smoke Friday night to get to the Denver Nuggets basketball game. The sweet smell lingering in the air reminded me less of a family event and more of the time I saw AC/DC on “The Razor’s Edge” tour at the old McNichols Sports Arena.

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I grew up in Colorado, but it’s been a while since I lived in the state. When I returned for a recent conference, I found that a place settled by the Gold Rush is now mad about reefer. In 2012, Colorado voters became the first in the nation to approve recreational pot use. The good times rolled out Jan. 1, when stores started selling it.

I’ve never tried pot, but I graduated from the University of Colorado — Boulder, which is famous for its annual “4/20” public pot parties. At CU, you can practically get a contact high walking to class. But I saw more public pot use in my two-day visit to Lower Downtown Denver than in years spent at Boulder.

It’s supposed to be illegal to smoke or consume pot in public. But then the day after the game, while jogging down the Speer Boulevard bike path, I passed a guy lounging under a tree lavishing his affections on a joint.

Anyone over 21 can walk into a dispensary and load up on bud, marijuana baked goods and candy.

The presence of legal pot right outside our hotel made people giddy at the conference I attended — a meeting of the Association of Health Care Journalists. At a reception, one woman passed a friend gummy bears infused with THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive ingredient in pot.

And then there was a friend of mine at the conference — I’ll call him “Dude” because he shared his story on condition I didn’t name him. He had a bad reaction after eating too many marijuana gummy bears.

There’s a running debate about whether pot should be legal for recreational use, but the Colorado experiment is rapidly unfolding, and it could help determine whether other states follow or shy away. (Washington voters also have approved recreational marijuana, and the state expects to begin licensing retailers in July.)

Two things stand out after my visit.

First, legal pot is attracting new and possibly naïve users — creating risks that some don’t bargain for. Second, the public health system’s desire to protect people may be well-intentioned, but regulation and efforts to track the health effects have a ways to go.

Dude had only smoked pot twice in his life, about 25 years ago, but he got curious and tried some pot gummy bears from a shop called the LoDo Wellness Center. Other than being infused with THC they looked and tasted like ordinary candy. Dude and his buddy paid $20 for a pack of 10.

Dude ate a bear before dinner but felt nothing. So he popped another during the meal. Nada. Ripoff, he assumed. So he ate a few more — five total, he said — but still felt nothing. He fell asleep in his hotel room at 11 p.m.

Two hours later, Dude awoke feeling like he was on a roller coaster. His entire body tingled, and he was light headed. He tried to stand, but his left leg was so numb he couldn’t walk to the bathroom. His pounding heart strained his rib cage as waves of euphoria and anxiety washed over him.

He was terrified.

Was this the high? An overdose? A heart attack? A stroke?

Totally debilitated, Dude thought about calling an ambulance but feared ending up in the E.R. or a police station. So he stayed put, guzzled water, pulled a blanket over his head and clutched a pillow. The symptoms lasted two hours, but it took a full day to feel normal again.

Dude’s experience and the open pot use I saw made me wonder about public health aspect of legalization. I called some experts to find out if there have been safety problems, how pot and gummy bears are being regulated and whether consumers are being educated about the risks.

The foods with pot — typically baked goods but also sodas, candies and even lasagna and pizza — cause the most unpredictable highs because the effects aren’t immediate and potency varies, I learned.

In the case of gummy bears, one is considered a single serving. But Dude kept eating them because he didn’t feel anything.

Haley Andrews, manager of the LoDo Wellness Center, said about half the shop’s customers are marijuana novices, so the staff takes time to educate everyone who buys. Users should start with one 10 mg gummy bear, she said, and never consume more than 20 mg at a time.

Andrews said the gummy bear bottle’s label listed the number of 10 mg servings inside and advises users to consume with caution because the product had not been tested for contaminants or potency. There is no mention of a delayed response, she said.

The Denver Post recently tested edibles and found that potency labeling was often inaccurate.

Accurate or not, labels are often ignored.

Dude said his buddy held onto the package so he never looked at it. He claims no one at the shop gave him any warnings about the gummy bears.

There were signs in the shop about how the different strains of pot would make users feel — “calm” or “excited” — but Dude said he saw no displays with advice for novice users, how many gummy bears are too many, or warnings about a delayed response.

Andrews said the staff makes every effort to ensure people use the products safely, but that it’s possible Dude somehow slipped through the cracks.

Generally, using too much pot isn’t life-threatening. But a reaction like Dude’s could contribute to a heart attack or stroke for someone who has health problems, said Dr. Tista Ghosh of the Colorado Department of Public Health. She said recreational pot has been unexpectedly popular with the older crowd.

“There’s a lot we don’t know,” Ghosh said. “I feel like in some ways we’re like tobacco 50 years ago. More research needs to be done on this from the public health and individual health perspective.”

Looking back on it, Dude said he was glad to be in his hotel room when the reaction hit him and not in a place where he could endanger others. According to reports in the Denver Post, pot use has contributed to car crashes and the recent death of a Wyoming college student, who on a spring break visit to Denver, began acting strangely and jumped from a fourth-floor hotel balcony.

Though ruled an accident, a coroner’s report said “marijuana intoxication” from eating several pot cookies was a significant contributor to the 19-year-old’s death, the Post reported.

Children are especially at risk. It’s illegal to make candy or fruit-flavored cigarettes in the United States, but pot candies and cookies in Colorado have been some of the best-selling products. Although the packaging is child-proof, it doesn’t stop kids once it’s open.

Dr. Andrew Monte, a medical toxicologist at the University of Colorado Medical School and Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center, didn’t have hard numbers but estimated that there is a poison control call every few days about a child accidentally eating marijuana products.

There also are reports from emergency room doctors, though no official numbers yet, of children showing up to hospitals in extreme states of drowsiness after accidentally consuming THC products, Monte said. Some end up getting expensive diagnostic work-ups like CT scans and spinal taps, he said.

THC infused gummy bears contain the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. (Photo courtesy of

“What kid doesn’t want a brownie or a gummy bear?” Monte said.

So far there are no mandatory tests of the potency or purity of recreational pot or THC food products, but they are scheduled to roll out in the coming months under the rules to implement the new law.

The process is more complicated than it would be in other cases because state regulators have not been able to rely on the federal health agencies. The federal government deems marijuana an illegal substance, so it’s not participating in the oversight, Ghosh said.

Ghosh said the Colorado regulators have had to start some things from scratch, including finding labs that can be certified to test pot products.

Michael Elliott, executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group, which represents marijuana centers, growers, and infused products manufacturers in Colorado, said there are clean kitchen standards in place now, and licensing of facilities, financial disclosures, security and more.

He said the industry is committed to robust regulation.

Elliott, Ghosh and Monte agree that more needs to be done to educate consumers.

The state has put up a website with information about the law and advice for parents and is running a “Drive High, Get a DUI” campaign, efforts that Elliott says are supported by the marijuana industry.

Included on the website is a page titled “Using Too Much?” aimed at people like Dude.

Public health also depends on people using common sense. My friend Dude is a smart guy, but he knows he was a dumb consumer when he gobbled the pot gummy bears. Now, he regrets assuming that because marijuana was legal nothing could go wrong.

“I was ignorant about the whole thing,” he told me later. “I am embarrassed to admit that I just ate the gummy bears because it seemed like fun.

“It was not.”

–Marshall Allen, ProPublica, with the Denver Post’s The Cannabist

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12 Responses for “Rocky Mountain High or Reefer Madness? Legal Pot Comes with Risks”

  1. Reaganomicon says:

    The article is correct about how edibles are handled right now in Colorado, however, thing are changing even as I type this as more and more companies pop up that test for THC and CDB concentrations, thereby allowing labels to correctly reflect what’s in the edible in question.

    That said, let’s talk about Dude.

    Dude ate some edibles without doing any research whatsoever into edibles and after only having smoked pot twice in his life, and was surprised that after eating one and feeling nothing he got face-meltingly high after eating a handful? Really? In this day and age? When you can literally research anything on the internet, while you are looking at it, on your phone?

    Here, Dude. I’ll help:

    Hope that helps, Dude. Keep in mind that you didn’t die, you just had a bad experience. Had you done a shot of Jack, felt nothing, and then killed an entire handle in under an hour then that probably wouldn’t be the case.

  2. Steve Wolfe says:

    Wow. This story is just screaming, “please comment.”

    The pot industry is committed to “robust regulation.” Does that statement make anyone else get the giggles? It would seem to me that the pot industry is going to be committed to pizza and potato chips, which, by the way, should see robust sales increases. And probably paid for with public assistance funds.

    I think one casualty of the Colorado social experiment will be due to the huge increase in the number of applicants for enrollment in Colorado colleges. (Kind of gives a new meaning to “institutions of higher learning”.) Gee, I wonder what suddenly attracted all those “students.” One casualty will be seen as so many college degrees will begin to be received from Colorado colleges (at least by the kids who didn’t smoke much—the rest will probably require more “higher learning” to complete their requirements). I envision their employment applications being summarily “deleted” by prospective employers who will want nothing to do with new employees that have demonstrated that they have only one “high” expectation of themselves (hint: it has nothing to do with getting out of bed early or working hard to improve and deliver the employer’s products).

    Another possible casualty will be the increased burden on taxpayers who will invariably have to pick up more student loan defaults from the deadbeat parents who told their kids, “Yeah, I think it’s a GREAT idea that you study in Colorado! Maybe we’ll just move there, too!”

    But the possible benefits are what excite me. If other states, upon observing negative results in Colorado and Washington, decide they don’t want to join the “enlightened” states, we will see a migration of disenfranchised pro-pot voters to Colorado and Washington. That will isolate many of the low-ambition people in two camps, both of which already love to dedicate lots of public funding for social programs. Then the rest of us can observe the drama in those states as they spiral downward. It will make their sanctuary state status seem like a much smaller burden by example.

    Ironically, that is precisely what the states should be able to do: experiment on the state scale, so we can observe the results and vote with our feet if we like what another state offers that we can’t seem to get in our own. Texas, for instance, has been a shining example of lower taxes and pro-growth policies. The result: population growth, job growth, higher incomes, stability, and expansion of the tax base with resultant increase in revenues to the state treasury. In case you think that’s an anomaly, it is also working right here in Florida (except in Flagler County). If, on the other hand, a state prefers high social spending and high business regulation and high personal income taxes, people are also free to vote with their feet and leave those states, an example that New York provides (to the benefit of Florida! Thanks New York!).

    One more thing we should be able to control on a state-by-state basis is education. The one-size-fits-all program called “Common Core,” administered by the Federal Government to ALL states, is an example of the usurpation of state sovereignty. Sloppiness, unresponsiveness, unimaginable budgets, and poor results are the hallmarks of nearly any Federally administered program. Education of our children is one thing that we should be able to exercise our rightful parental authority over on a much more local basis. So is our city government. Talk to me, Pierre! (Hope you are having a good day, and thanks for your news service again.)

  3. barbie says:

    Stupid people are “at risk” for a lot of things. Can we PLEASE dispense with the Reefer Madness? It’s truly tiresome.


    Legalizing marijuana seems to be the wave of the future.

    But I put my foot down at contaminating gummy bears!

  5. m&m says:

    I hope the people of Florida understand what will happen if this is legalized.. Morgan and Morgan and that turn coat Charlie Crist are who’s pushing this.. WE MUST NOT ALLOW THIS TO HAPPEN> VOTE NO.

    • Anonymous says:

      yes I vote yes an have you try it all it do to you is make you hunger an laugh keep you from stressing out that’s it ok so don’t say no try it before you say noooooooooooooooo

  6. Fleek Weebnut says:

    I feel like I lost a bunch of brain cells after reading this article. You know, like when you drink too much (legal). I’ll sum it up:
    “anecdote, anecdote, opinion, anecdote, another anecdote, opinion.”

    “Generally, using too much pot isn’t life-threatening.”
    Um, no. Absolutely. No one has ever died from smoking pot. Compare that to Tylenol.

    “There also are reports from emergency room doctors, though no official numbers yet…”
    Exactly. Facts please, Mr. Reporter/Journalist/Hack

    “It’s illegal to make candy or fruit-flavored cigarettes.”
    But not fruit or candy flavored alcohol or cigars. What’s your point?

    Oh.. it’s SAAAAVE THE CHILLIN!!!

    Please. Stop it.

  7. Cookie Monster says:

    This whole article is about some dumbazz “dude” who ate too many THC gummy bears. well here’s an opinion for your genius friend…….Stick to 6 beers and a shot of liquor when going out on the town. Leave the “gummy bears ” to those who can control their gummy needs.

  8. Anonymous says:

    A hallucinogen based society can only implode and fail. Watch it happen. When you have a common drug addict president, this is what society is permitted to become.

  9. RHWeir says:

    Complicated issue. Yeah, got to be careful if you bake the brownies! And good luck getting it out of the system. It hangs around a long, long time.

  10. Jack Turner says:

    OK, first off Dude is not a smart guy. Dude is an idiot who didn’t have a high tolerance in the first place, didn’t do his homework, and took a dosage large enough for 6 people. And then complained about how high he got. If that’s smart then dangit I’m a rocket scientist.

    As far as the two deaths? You cannot simply conclude these accidents were caused by the victims having THC in their systems. Give me actual evidence that they were high during the time of the incidents(THC resides in body fat LONG after the effects have worn off) and also you have to weigh in all other factors. Was the jumper suicidal? Was the driver a frequently negligent one. Your circumstantial conclusions are evidence that you are a very irresponsible journalist.

    Little kids? How about all the little kids who accidentally swallow prescription pills everyday, whose side-effects are FAR worse. The same principle applies here if you have children around, keep your medications/cannabis in a high-up locked place where children cannot access it. Furthermore, as you did with sex, alcohol, and tobbaco educate them on what the substance is and possible risks that ensue. After all, safe pratice is best practice.

    On a lighter note, if it was legal, think of all the taxpayers hard earned money that won’t be spent incarcerating non-violent offenders who’s only crime was puffing a joint. That money could be better allocated towards the school system, fire/police dept., etc. Also, look at how much tax revenue Colorado is generating based on cannabis. That could be you Florida.

    I’m done ranting though. The bottom line is this, people have free will. If they partake in recreation cannabis use they’re gonna do so with or without your blessings. You can either continue dumping large amount of your state’s money and patience into a never ending battle. Or, you can join us over here and talk this out like civilized human beings while we find an alternative solution to all this nonsense that works out equally for both parties.

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