Senator: Legal marijuana would create many challenges

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STATE HOUSE — Highly potent edible forms of marijuana make up nearly half the legalized market in Colorado and have had dangerous consequences for adults and children, according to a Massachusetts senator who returned last week from a research trip.

Back from what he called an “eye-opening trip,” Sen. Jason Lewis says Massachusetts needs to be prepared for challenges, including the need for increased financial resources to regulate the industry, if voters legalize marijuana use by approving a ballot question in November.

In Colorado, Lewis heard reports of children being brought to hospitals after accidentally ingesting the drug in edibles and adults, accustomed to the instant high associated with smoking marijuana, who consumed too many edibles and then encountered problems.

“I think we would have hard questions to wrestle with there as to what products might cross the line in terms of whether they would be considered legal products for sale,” Lewis told the News Service.

Colorado also allows home-grown marijuana, forcing law enforcement officials there to keep an eye on the quantity of plants.

“It does appear that the black market, which is still thriving – seems to still be thriving in Colorado – a lot of that is being diverted from home growing that can kind of in some cases hide under the appear-to-be-legal but may in fact be diverted to either youth use or going across state lines,” Lewis said. “So that’s another challenging issue that we’d have to take a hard look at.”

The Winchester Democrat, leading a Special Committee on Marijuana, joined seven colleagues on the four-day, fact-finding trip. They returned last Thursday from the Centennial State where they met with government officials, toured growing farms, and visited retail shops to study the state’s experience with legalization.

An edible product is one where tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana – is infused into food, like a cookie or candy, said Lewis, who added that THC can also be added to a beverage or sprayed on to a product.

When these products are consumed, it may take 30 minutes or an hour for a high to kick in and that has caused some people to consume more of the product, increasing the potential for risks to personal health.

“It can lead to over-consuming and then there can be a negative, harsh adverse reaction from that. There’s a lot of issues around edibles,” said Lewis, who added that edibles account for 40 percent to 50 percent of the market in Colorado and are “growing rapidly.”

Lewis said because of the vast array of marijuana products available, fewer people are smoking joints that he said were more common in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. He said most people still compare smoking a joint to the idea of having a beer or a glass of wine.

“I think what we learned is that that is really just the tippity tip of the iceberg,” he said. “And even that is not actually an accurate reflection of what it means today – what marijuana is all about today. Because people today, for the most part they aren’t even smoking marijuana. They’re vaping it. They’re dabbing it. They’re eating it. They’re drinking it. It’s even infused into energy drinks for example. So even the notion of like smoking a joint is out of date and it’s so different today in terms of what products are available and how it’s consumed,” said Lewis.

There are “incredibly potent” marijuana products in Colorado with 90 percent THC, according to Lewis, who compared that to 2 percent for a traditional joint. “You don’t even find products with 2 percent anymore,” he said, adding there are “big questions” associated with higher potency marijuana regarding addiction and public health.

While warning about the potency of marijuana products, Lewis was not speaking from firsthand experience – he said he did not try any marijuana products while in Colorado. “We didn’t think that was necessary as part of our research,” he said.

The Senate committee plans to release a report in February on its recommendations for the regulation of the pot industry should a ballot question pass in 2016. If approved it would make Massachusetts the sixth state to legalize marijuana, allowing those 21 and over to use the drug, and establish a tax on cannabis goods.

Citing THC-infused jelly beans, Lewis said lawmakers and regulators could have a role to play in limiting the scope of legalized marijuana products and by imposing packaging and labeling requirements to alert consumers about the potency of products.

Other policy questions revolve around licensing, marketing, advertising, law enforcement, employment, banking services, growing and agriculture. “There’s such a wide range of other factors that come into play,” Lewis said, noting that state and local governments need to ramp up regulatory systems since marijuana is not legal under federal law and federal agencies do not play oversight roles.

Colorado officials, for instance, have become involved in regulating pesticides, he said, because humid marijuana growing conditions in warehouses have drawn pests like aphids and black mold. Pesticide use has forced regulators to take on testing roles to ensure that products treated with pesticides are safe for human consumption.

Lawmakers and law enforcement officials may also have to confront ways to minimize public safety and public health impacts associated with legalized marijuana, he said.

“You’re never going to stamp out any of the concerns on accidental ingestion or people not using the product in a responsible way,” he said.

Full audio of the interview, click here.

— Written by Antonio Caban

Michael Norton contributed reporting

Copyright State House News Service