Don't feast on edible marijuana until you read this

Will you be having a bit of marijuana with your bacon? Or a pinch of it in your coffee? Or a dab in the syrup you’ll pour on your pancakes?

The choice is yours.

To the joy and alarm of many, cannabis is being infused in virtually every type of food and drink, from ravioli and BBQ to juices and cider.

Medical marijuana users have long consumed edibles to alleviate pain, fight insomnia and boost their appetites.

But edibles are also increasingly popular among recreational users, many of whom misuse the products and end up getting sick, sometimes violently so.

“Edibles can be very dangerous if not used correctly,” said Jay Frentsos, a budtender at the Bay Park outlet of Urbn Leaf, which sells medical marijuana in many forms.

The store is one of about 12 shops in San Diego that are preparing to sell even more edibles in January, when the state starts allowing licensed outlets to peddle recreational marijuana to people 21 and older. Such sales were sanctioned by Proposition 64, which was approved by voters in November 2016.

The sale of edibles is a source of concern to the state, which on Thursday issued new working rules that place sharper restrictions on such products. The changes include limits on the amount of THC that can be placed in edibles. THC is the principle mind-altering compound in marijuana plants.

The new rules, which may be adjusted, say that edibles can’t have more than 10 mg of THC per serving, or more than 100 mg per package. The regulations add that “other cannabis products, such as tinctures, capsules and topicals, are limited to a maximum of 1,000 mg per package for the adult-use market and 2,000 mg of THC per package for the medicinal-use market.”

Some stores, including Urbn Leaf, have been selling products that contain up to 1,000 mg of THC.

The California Department of Public Health also issued guidelines that say that, “Cannabis product packaging cannot resemble traditionally available food packages. …

“Edible products cannot be shaped like a human, animal, insect, or fruit. Some potentially-hazardous foods, such as meat and seafood, and other products requiring refrigeration, are prohibited for sale as cannabis products.”

The rules further stipulate that product “labels not be attractive to individuals under age 21.”

Regulators are concerned that some customers could mistake edible products with traditional foods. For example, some cannabis stores sell Weetos, a marijuana-infused product whose package greatly resembles Cheetos, a non-marijuana product.

Regulators are likely to give stores time to phase out their existing stock and replace it with products that meet the new restrictions.

To date, the use of edible marijuana doesn’t represent a major public health problem.

“In comparison to the number of people using it, (overdoses of edibles) are quite small,” said Dr. Richard Clark, a professor of emergency medicine, and director of toxicology, at UC San Diego Health.

“From a public health perspective, I have less concern about it than I have for alcohol.”

But Clark also said there’s likely to be an increase in overdoses or bad experiences when recreational cannabis sales start in January.

“There’s going to be a temporary spike,” Clark said. “If you look at other states, like Colorado, there is a temporary spike as people get used to the whole idea of it being there, and more people getting comfortable using it.”

Experts say that edible marijuana isn’t inherently dangerous. The problem is that people metabolize it differently, so it isn’t immediately apparent to users what dosage they can comfortably handle.

“The ‘high’ from edibles occurs approximately an hour after ingestion, so it’s harder for users, particularly inexperienced ones, to anticipate how they will be affected,” said Dr. Thomas Marcotte, a UC San Diego psychiatrist who also does studies at the university’s Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research.

“The high also tends to last much longer, and may actually be more intense, than when smoking, because THC gets metabolized into a different psychoactive form when it passes through the liver.

“The effects can also be modified by the person’s history of cannabis use, in that frequent users may experience less of a cognitive impact than occasional users."

Clark said, “We’ve had (patients) who ate (edibles) and said, ‘Wow, this is a lot stronger than I usually get’ and they have an anxiety-type reaction. They’re worried that something’s wrong. (It’s) usually self-limiting — goes away after several hours.”

There also are questions about quality control when it comes to the production of edible marijuana. Earlier this year, in a lengthy look at the field, the New Yorker magazine referred to California’s budding market as “a nascent industry without dependable methods for cooking and dosing."

To cut down on bad experiences, Frentsos and other budtenders frequently tell customers to make sure they know what they’re eating, and to consume slowly. The mantra is: “You can always eat more. You can never eat less.

Budtenders generally recommend that a person start with an edible product that has only 5 mg of THC, then wait 30 to 60 minutes to see how it affects them. Experts say 5 mg is roughly equal to one or two puffs off a joint.

This is an effective way for a person to find their “personnel dosage level.”

Even then, there can be problems. Notably, temptation.

Many edibles look and smell delicious, and are virtually indistinguishable from what a person could buy at a corner market. The milk chocolate blueberries sold at Urbn Leaf look like Milk Duds. The gummies resemble, well, gummies. And the Kiva chocolate bars could be mistaken for many high-end chocolates. It’s easy to over-indulge.

The pretty packaging and tasty foods represent a specific attempt to appeal to people who want to consume marijuana more discreetly, without the use of bongs, pipes or vaporizers.

“We want cannabis to be acceptable to someone who has never used it before, and this is an easy, social way to do it,” said Leone Posod, who runs Treat Yourself with her business partner, Cindy Pinzon.

The Tustin company produces small tarts that are lightly-infused with marijuana. Their ad campaign sharply focuses on female consumers.

“Cindy and I felt that women have been under-represented in the (marijuana) dispensaries,” Posod said. “There weren’t any products geared to women, and their interests in health. Our product is all about wellness.”

Posod and Pinzon started their company 2.5 years ago. Early on, they were producing about 200 tarts per month. Now, they’re up to a few thousand. But they’re not sure whether the start of recreational sales in January is going to lead to explosive growth for edibles.”

Pinzon said, “We’ve recently come to the realization that we have to be patient. Everyone has been pointing to January 1st as the start of all this. That’s just caused a lot of anxiety. It’s going to take a while to figure out what’s going to happen.

“For us, it’s not about making a quick buck. It’s about establishing a business for this. We’re playing the long game.”

ICYMI

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Armored couriers might help state collect taxes from cash-only cannabis companies

Twitter: @grobbins

gary.robbins@sduniontribune.com

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