States preparing to legalize cannabis for recreational use in 2017 have been warned to impose strong regulations on edible products, in order to help prevent children mistaking the drug for candy.
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John Hickenlooper, governor of Colorado, which pioneered legal cannabis for recreational use in 2014, said other states should learn from his state’s example.
“We didn’t regulate edibles strongly enough at first,” he said this week, at a gathering of the Western Governors’ Association.
Colorado has seen a rise in numbers of children taken to the hospital after eating marijuana products.
California, Massachusetts, Nevada and Maine are the latest states to legalize recreational cannabis, after voters passed ballot measures in the November elections.
Recreational use is currently legal in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia. More than half of the 50 states now allow marijuana for medical use.
Los Angeles could become the weed capital of the world, one industry insider has predicted, estimating that the southern California city already generated close to $1bn in annual medical marijuana sales.
The whole of Colorado had just under $1bn in sales in 2015, on which the industry paid $135m in taxes and fees to the state. Revenues are likely to grow to $1.3bn in 2017, according to the state department of revenue.
Hickenlooper, who said he had been fielding calls from governors asking for his advice, California’s Jerry Brown among them, opposed legalizing recreational pot. The drug nonetheless became legal for leisure use in Colorado in January 2014.
The state has since been forced to toughen regulations, particularly on edible products, because many emerged that looked exactly like non-cannabis-containing products such as gummy bears, lollipops, brownies, cookies and chocolates.
Lawmakers in Colorado passed rules requiring manufacturers to improve child-proofing on packaging and use better labeling, including stamps on food to say it contains pot.
Recent measures will prohibit animal and fruit-shaped edibles. The state also started a public education campaign aimed at teens and children.
Hickenlooper, speaking in California, said that in a few cases children had died. There are, however, no confirmed statistics or details available for the state.
Hickenlooper spokeswoman Holly Shrewsbury told the Guardian there have been no such deaths of under-18s and the governor was including young adults in his reference to children, without citing exact numbers.
A study by the University of Colorado published last July reported that in 2015, 16 children under the age of 10 were admitted to the emergency room of the Children’s Hospital of Colorado, in Aurora, with edible-related complaints.
In the same year, state poison control authorities received 47 calls about children falling sick after taking pot. Around half of those incidents involved edibles. In 2009, there were nine such calls to poison control.
It’s more regulated than plutonium at this stage but I’m in favour of common sense rules backed by science, not fear.
Most children affected became drowsy and recovered after a few hours. A small number became seriously ill and ended up in intensive care.
Julie Dooley, who owns Julie’s Natural Edibles, a Denver company that makes cannabis-infused granola, echoed the governor’s advice that states should regulate better from the start of legalization, rather than bring in laws retroactively.
“It’s important to regulate ahead of time,” she said. “We’ve just gone through our fourth round of regulation since legalization and it’s very expensive having to change the labeling and packaging all the time.
“It’s more regulated than plutonium at this stage, but I’m in favor of common sense rules, backed by science, not fear.”
Dooley said it was incumbent on parents to store cannabis and cannabis products safely away from children, but said the state should do “a lot more” to educate the public.
Hickenlooper said that if he could have had a magic wand in 2013, he would have reversed Colorado’s legalization vote.
“Now if I have that magic wand, I probably wouldn’t,” he said. “I would wait and see if we can make a better system.”
He described America’s wider policy of waging a law enforcement “war on drugs” as “a train wreck”.
“It didn’t work, so it remains to be seen whether the new system is actually going to be better,” he said.
Last week, Colorado announced $2.35m in funding for research grants to look into the effects of cannabis on driving ability and cognitive functioning.
Henny Lasley, executive director of Smart Colorado, an advocacy group that campaigns for better protections from cannabis for youth, said: “Cannabis products should not look like candy, or like anything a child would pick up and eat.”
She called for more research and data at the state level and warned about the strength of highly concentrated pot coming on to the market for recreational use.
“I would like states to limit the potency of the products,” she said.
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The federal government still classes marijuana as an illegal drug in the same category as heroin and LSD, even though the Obama administration has taken a hands-off approach to states that have legalized it.
It is unclear how much will change under Donald Trump. The president-elect has indicated that marijuana policy should be up to the states but his nominee for attorney general, the Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, is robustly against legalization.
Jaime Lewis, chief executive of the Mountain Medicine medical and recreational marijuana business in Colorado and chairwoman of the National Cannabis Industry Association, said she expected states to fight any attempt by Washington to crack down at state level again.
The association’s aim is for cannabis to be legal across the nation.
“Congratulations to the new states that are going to legalize recreational cannabis in 2017,” she said.
“It’s created jobs in Colorado and has pulled the business from the dark of the black market into the light, as a viable industry.”