War on Drugs

My Marijuana Overdose

Edibles are tricky, but consumers are not as helpless as Maureen Dowd implies.


During a recent trip to Colorado, I sat on the cold hard floor of my hotel bathroom in the middle of the night, thinking about Maureen Dowd. The New York Times columnist had been widely mocked for eating too much marijuana-infused chocolate, which left her "curled up in a hallucinatory state for the next eight hours." And not in a good way.

"I was panting and paranoid, sure that when the room-service waiter knocked and I didn't answer, he'd call the police and have me arrested for being unable to handle my candy," Dowd wrote in June. "I strained to remember where I was or even what I was wearing, touching my green corduroy jeans and staring at the exposed-brick wall. As my paranoia deepened, I became convinced that I had died and no one was telling me."

My own marijuana overdose was not nearly so dramatic. But I clearly had eaten one sour gummy candy too many. When I got up from bed to use the bathroom shortly after midnight, I was so dizzy that I had to sit down. I sat/fell hard enough to leave an impressive-looking bruise on my lower back. I know because during my massage with cannabis-infused lotion a few days later the masseuse remarked on it, which prompted me to tell her the whole embarrassing story, the moral of which is that edibles are indeed tricky, but consumers are not quite as helpless as Dowd portrays them.

'Start Low and Go Slow'

Toni Fox, owner of 3D Cannabis Center in Denver, does not discount the unpleasantness of Dowd's ordeal. Although "you're not going to die from it," she says, "you can feel absolutely horrific if you've never had an experience like that." At the same time, Fox thinks Dowd should have known better. "I believe the dispensary told her what the proper dosage was," she says. "I believe her tour guide told her what a proper dosage is." The guide who showed Dowd around during her visit told The Cannabist he warned her to be careful with edibles. "We all know that the world is watching us," says Fox, whose dispensary was the first recreational pot store to open in January. "He knew who she was. He's going to inform her correctly."

Dowd claimed that in response to experiences like hers Colorado regulators are "moving toward demarcating a single-serving size of 10 milligrams." But when she wrote her column, state regulations already required that labels on marijuana-infused foods and beverages indicate the total amount of THC and the number of 10-milligram "standard servings" in a package. "Total THC content is very clear on the packaging," notes Joe Hodas, chief marketing officer at Dixie Elixirs & Edibles in Denver. Labels also indicate that "10 milligrams is a serving size," he adds, and "if there are multiple servings of THC within an item, that is denoted appropriately."

Dowd says the wrapper of the candy bar she bought did not include this information. Yet almost all of the edibles I saw during my trip in June had labels that indicated an appropriate serving for new or occasional consumers.

Using the information on the label is often straightforward. Edi-Pure makes various cannabis-infused candies, including the watermelon-flavored gummies I bought, in packages of 10. Each candy contains one 10-milligram dose of THC. Sometimes calculating a serving is a bit trickier. Dixie sells bubbly, fruit-flavored drinks in 250-milliliter bottles that contain either 40 or 75 milligrams of THC, so you need a measuring cup (and possibly a calculator) to get the dose right. A standard serving is about 63 milliliters of the weaker version, 33 milliliters of the stronger one. In an effort to simplify things for newbies, Dixie recently introduced a five-milligram "single dose" drink "for those who are new to THC or don't like to share."

If Edi-Pure's products make dosing easy, why did I end up reeling on the way to the bathroom? I ate one candy in the late afternoon. Two hours later, I felt slightly buzzed and made the mistake of eating another candy to enhance the effect before heading out to dinner. What I failed to consider is that although an edible's effects typically are noticeable within an hour or two, they may not peak for several hours. That one candy, it turned out, was plenty, and two was too many, which may explain why I had so much trouble following the plot of Ender's Game on the hotel's pay-per-view system and fell asleep a third of the way through the movie (or maybe not; I have not tried to watch the movie sober). The extra candy also explains why I had so much trouble walking to the bathroom later that night.

For occasional cannabis consumers who would like to benefit from my stupidity, I'd say a good rule is to consume no more than a 10-milligram dose the first time around. The next day, you may decide in retrospect that 10 milligrams was not enough, but do not try to figure the right dose out on the fly, since it may take hours to feel the full effects. "Start with a low dose," advises Dixie's Joe Hodas, "and see how it feels-just as you would if you've never heard of alcohol in your life or never tried it before. Start low and go slow." The thing about edibles, as Maureen Dowd discovered, is that you can't uneat them when you realize you've had too much.

How the Government Pushes Edibles

"It is a legitimate issue," says Michael Elliott, executive director of Colorado's Marijuana Industry Group. "Maureen Dowd's story isn't the first time that we've heard about something like this happening. There are an awful lot of people who are new or naive users, and they simply don't understand that edible products take quite a long time to settle in."

Despite frequently expressed concerns about the special risks posed by edibles, restrictions on marijuana consumption in Colorado may be steering people toward them. As Brookings Institution scholar John Hudak notes in a generally positive review of Colorado's regulatory rollout published in July, it can be such a challenge to find a place where smoking pot is legal, especially for tourists, that people who otherwise would prefer to light up a bowl or a joint may end up eating truffles or cookies instead. "When it comes to edibles, tourists tend to be naive users-the highest-risk group," Hudak observes. "If you're worried about the safety of edibles," says Denver attorney Christian Sederberg, a leader of Colorado's legalization campaign, "then you should be encouraging places where people can smoke."

Consumers put off by the long and unpredictable delays associated with marijuana-infused foods may want to try vape pens, which use cartridges containing cannabis concentrates. These devices deliver THC as fast as smoking, so you can easily titrate your dose, but without combustion products. They also avoid digestion and processing by the liver, which creates 11-hydroxy-THC, a variation on marijuana's main psychoactive ingredient that may be more conducive to freakouts like Dowd's than the delta-9-THC that smokers and vapers get. Vape pens look like e-cigarettes and generate only a faint, quickly dissipating cannabis odor, so they can be used more discreetly than a joint or pipe.

For those who are determined not to inhale anything, several products occupy a middle ground between smoking/vaping and swallowing cannabis-infused solids. Beverages like Dixie's start to take effect much more quickly than solid foods (within 20 minutes for me). Then there are various products, including tinctures, sucking candies, and dissolving strips, that deliver THC mainly through the mucus membrane of the mouth, avoiding the liver and hastening the psychoactive effect. "We have a THC-infused mint that is incredibly popular," says Dixie CEO Tripp Keber. "It's placed between cheek and gum. You would absorb it through your buccal [mucosa], and it goes straight to the brain, so a very low dose is very efficient."

This year Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor and Libertarian presidential candidate, became CEO of a new company, Cannabis Sativa Inc., that will make marijuana-infused lozenges similar to cough drops. "Couple of things hit you when you try the product," Johnson told A.P. in July. "One is, wow, why would anybody smoke marijuana given this is an alternative? And then secondly, it's just very, very pleasant. I mean, very pleasant."

The Consumer Makes the Dose

One thing Dowd got right is that Colorado's marijuana industry originally served patients-regular users who have developed tolerance and are accustomed to high doses of THC. "The medical marijuana patient was driving the dosing up," Keber says. "They wanted as much medicine [as they could get] for their dollar." With the recreational consumers now entering the market, he says, "the profile is dramatically different. They want to be social. They want to be creative. They don't want to have a 100-milligram elixir and then sit in the corner."

The industry is adjusting, offering less potent products such as Dixie's five-milligram drinks, which are part of the new Dixie One line. "If this is what people want, the businesses are going to cater to it," says Michael Elliott of the Marijuana Industry Group. "On the recreational side, I think it just took a bit of time for everyone to realize that high-potency products aren't suitable for people who have never used edible products before. Now the companies are creating more of these low-potency products, with one dose of marijuana in one serving of food."

But it would be a mistake to mandate a one-size-fits-all approach. Currently the maximum amount of THC per package for recreational products is 100 milligrams, or 10 standard servings. Gov. John Hickenlooper has suggested each package should contain just "one dose." But one dose for whom? Ten milligrams may be plenty for an occasional user, but it is way too low for many regular users. As Elliott puts it, "A lot of consumers are saying, 'I don't want to get diabetes trying to get everything that I want. I don't want to have to eat 10 candy bars to get the 10 doses of marijuana that I want." Such a mandate would impose extra packaging expenses on manufacturers (and ultimately on consumers) while decreasing customer satisfaction. It makes more sense to offer a variety of potencies to suit the needs of different consumers.

At the end of July, the Colorado Department of Revenue's Marijuana Enforcement Division (MED) unveiled "emergency" regulations that require edibles containing more than one 10-milligram dose of THC to be "physically demarked in a way that enables a reasonable person to intuitively determine how much of the product constitutes a single serving." Furthermore, the 10-milligram servings must be "easily separable." Since it was already easy to find products meeting those standards, the new rule seems unnecessary. It amounts to a ban on products like 100-milligram truffles, since they are not easily divided into 10-milligram servings. But at least this approach will not interfere with consumer choice as much as Hickenlooper's proposal.

Other edible regulations may be coming down the pike, courtesy of legislators or the MED. There has been talk of requiring that marijuana-infused foods be stamped or marked in some other way that indicates their special nature even when they are removed from their packaging. That mandate would be relatively easy to carry out with a gum drop or a cookie, less so with drinks, cooking oil, or pasta sauce.

The main goal should not be to impose arbitrary limits but to give consumers the variety and information they need to make choices that satisfy them. At the same time, legislators and regulators should keep in mind that even the best rules will not always prevent people who should know better from making decisions they regret.