THE GUARDIAN: Last week, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd brought attention to the dearth of regulation in edibles labeling when she wrote about eating too much of a THC-infused candy bar and spending eight hours in the fetal position. Readers laughed – a lot. But we were also left with a critical question: as marijuana laws are changing state by state, and more THC-infused products hit the shelves, do we know any more about what it does and how different doses affect us?
Researchers in the cannabis community are trying to answer this question through extensive testing. In March, an independent investigation by the Denver Post and the Cannabist found that the potency of edibles on the market in Colorado varied as much as 99% from what was on the label. And just a few weeks ago, Colorado announced that it would begin requiring edibles manufacturers to send samples of those products to be tested.
To help us understand the health effects of ingesting different forms of cannabis and how getting high could change as regulations improve, the Guardian spoke with three experts who run Steep Hill Halent, a cannabis testing laboratory that will test edibles products for the state.
When you did your first round of testing for the Denver Post, you found that in some cases an edible marked as having 100mg of THC had as little as .3 or as much as 136mg. Did the findings surprise you?
Joseph Evans, Colorado’s lab director: The fact that there was labeling inaccuracy was not a surprise to many people. In fact, there was already anecdotal evidence: our research began because a particular dispensary gave us a candy bar and told us: “Everybody’s been complaining that this has no effect. Can you test it?” The magnitude, on the other hand, was certainly huge news for not only the community, but for the regulators in Colorado. They expected to see some variation in different products, but they didn’t know it would be that big.
Can you explain why the amount of THC varies so much compared to what’s on the label?
Dr Kymron deCesare, chief research officer: It’s important to remember that for about 60 years, we’ve had the USDA and FDA, both federal agencies, working to make sure that everything that goes into or on our body meets certain regulations. Because marijuana is a schedule-one [federally illegal] drug, the federal government isn’t allowed to be involved. This means a large percentage of the people working in the cannabis industry don’t have any of the appropriate training that they would normally have if this were a legal material. They don’t know what best practices are, and as a result, they don’t practice them. One of the reasons we’re completely in favor of regulation for everyone in the cannabis community is because this will help bring standards up to that same level that we’ve all come to expect from the FDA.
Let’s talk about dosage. What would be considered a single serving, or dose, of marijuana?
Donald Land, chief scientific consultant: There is no standard dosage. Medically, physicians have to establish a dosage for each patient. However, there are some things that we can look at to establish some background on what dosages are. For example, a number of years ago the FDA approved Marinol [THC medication prescribed to treat nausea caused by chemotherapy], and in order to do so, proper dosage had to be established through clinical trials.
In the trials, they found that most people were unable to perceive much of an effect with a 2.5mg dose, more than half could feel the effect of a 5mg dose, and virtually all participants could feel a 10mg dose. So that gives us a starting point. 2.5 to 5mg is where most people should start, just to see how it affects them and what range of dosage works best for them.
When you smoke plant material, you get a near immediate response. Within a few seconds to a few minutes, one knows whether they’ve taken enough of the active ingredients or not and can adjust. The big problem with edibles is that it typically about an hour from ingesting before it makes it into the bloodstream to the extent that you can sense it. And very often, people slip into the false sensibility that they should take more because they haven’t felt anything after a half hour of 45 minutes. It’s a commonly encountered problem. And all of a sudden as it starts to kick in they realize, “Oh, that’s too much. What am I supposed to do?”
Kymron: Anecdotally, an average dosage for the moderate user has been discovered to be about 15mg, plus or minus a little. But as Don clearly pointed out, for novices using it or people who have concerns about psychoactivity, you want to start with a much smaller dose. We see some folks out there who need more – they can take dosages starting at 25mg, hitting 50mg and more. But that should be the exception to the rule.
Did you read Maureen Dowd’s column?
Donald: We did. Hers is a common experience, unfortunately, due to lack of labeling, and lack of education for most people who are new to it or revisiting it. The levels of active ingredients that are present in edibles nowadays is wide ranging, mostly due to problems in the processing stage. We know how a plant generally behaves: most plants will have somewhere around 10% of active ingredient [THC] by weight. In the worst case there may be hardly anything, in the best there may be two or three times as much as that, but we can guess within that factor. But once manufacturers start processing it, our testing has found that we’re not looking at a factor of two or three anymore, we’re looking at a factor of 10 or 20.
We’ve had test results for products where the appropriate dosage for most people would be one piece of popcorn or three peanuts or one-sixteenth of a candy bar. That was the case with Ms Dowd. She was informed later that she should have cut that bar into 16 pieces. Have you ever tried to cut something into 16 pieces? That’s not exactly convenient.
It’s unfortunate, because a lot of people who could probably derive some significant benefit from edible forms of cannabis get turned off the first time they try it because not enough information is available to them.
When people smoke or ingest too much for their comfort level and think they’re going to die, what’s the worst that will happen to them, chemically and/or physically?
Kymron: Probably the worst that could happen would be eating too much and getting sick. You could get dizzy and fall down, you can get mental anxiety, you can even get nauseated and vomit. But it’s well known that there’s no documented case of a death directly attributed to THC or any other cannabinoid. It’s just not toxic in that way. The lethal dose is so large that you’d have to literally eat tens or hundreds of grams to reach it. The major problem is is the temporary discomfort you’re going to feel if you get sick off it. But any physician in an emergency room who has had to treat these things knows exactly what to tell that person: lie down, take a nap, in a couple hours you’ll feel much better.
So how do you imagine the future of how edibles are labeled? Like a nutrition label?
Kymron: There’s only one way that ultimately this is going to work: cannabis has got to fit in to the way we do everything else in our society. It can’t have special rules. What we’re looking at here in a medical sense is something that’s partially food – so a nutrition label – but also partially drug, so it will have to have a list of active ingredients and all the appropriate warnings, just like you see on any drug label on the shelf in a pharmacy.
If it’s being used recreationally, like for a bottle of wine or beer, the critical thing that people need to know is a proofage. We’ve learned what 90 proof, or 45%, means on a bottle of whiskey. We know what sort of impact that will have on our bodies. Ultimately in the market, you’ll need to have those numbers on cannabis products too, and the public will need to learn approximately what those numbers mean so they can make appropriate choices.