Aspen Times Weekly: The New Enemy?
LOCAL Marijuana poisoning cases*
(types of poising not specified)
2014: 16 cases
2015: 17 cases
2016 (as of Aug. 24): 21 cases
19 and younger: 4
19 and younger: 2
2016 (as of Aug. 24)
19 and younger: 1
*Source: Aspen Valley Hospital
Back in March, Pitkin County commissioners and Sheriff Joe DiSalvo began a unique discussion about marijuana edibles.
They wondered why most edibles come the form of sweet treats like cookies, chocolates and gummi bears. If you want to eat cannabis, they asked, can’t you just take a pill and dispense with the sugary desserts that appeal to children?
Because that was their main concern — keeping marijuana edibles, which can be easily mistaken for regular treats, out of the hands of young children.
Those questions led to a 90-minute roundtable discussion with DiSalvo, county health officials and a youth counselor during a mid-March work session. At the end of that meeting, commissioners asked DiSalvo and the Valley Marijuana Council, a group DiSalvo co-founded to promote responsible marijuana use, to come up with specific proposals to further regulate and possibly ban edible cannabis products in Pitkin County.
Now, nearly six months later, DiSalvo and the marijuana council are struggling to determine not only what those proposals might be — but whether marijuana edibles are even a problem in Pitkin County and the Roaring Fork Valley.
“We have spent a long time examining this and looking for something we can sink our teeth into,” DiSalvo said in a recent interview. “And we’re still looking.
“We’re still trying to identify if there’s a problem.”
Lori Mueller, executive director of YouthZone, which counsels local middle and high school kids who have gotten into trouble with alcohol or drugs, agreed. “At first I was really excited (and thought), ‘Let’s get rid of these stupid cookies,’” Mueller said. “It made a lot of sense to me at the time.”
Now that she’s had time to look into the issue, she said she’s not sure banning or further regulating marijuana edibles is worth the time and effort.
“Most of the kids we see are using marijuana. … Their preferred way is smoking it though,” Mueller said.
“So (marijuana) is an issue (for kids), but I’m not sure edibles is an issue.”
About a week after the edibles discussion in mid-March, commissioners denied a local woman’s application to manufacture cannabis-infused candies and other sweet products at a kitchen at the Aspen Business Center.
While they were concerned about the facility’s proximity to a daycare center, the commissioners’ main objections centered on the business’ proposed products and their appeal to children.
“Things that look like candy, smell like candy and taste like candy are too dangerous to my mind,” Commissioner Rachel Richards said at the time.
Commissioner Patti Clapper echoed those sentiments.
“I understand your products would be in child-proof containers, but I’m worried about (edible marijuana) products out of containers,” she told the woman whose application was later denied.
In May, however, the county board unanimously approved a local man’s application to produce cannabis-infused buffalo jerky at a facility at the Aspen Business Center.
Commissioner Michael Owsley said he was comfortable granting the infused jerky business a yearlong license, which would give the board time to consider recommendations from the Valley Marijuana Council and the community’s feelings.
Richards was the most reluctant to approve that application and told her colleagues she wanted to re-examine codes that appear to welcome people to set up marijuana-edible businesses in Pitkin County.
“I would like to make this our last (edibles) facility,” Richards said. “I want the board to talk seriously about eliminating that.”
BY THE NUMBERS
DiSalvo said one of the main reasons he questions whether accidental ingestion of marijuana edibles by young children is even a problem in Pitkin County has to do with the law of averages.
“When I look at the amount of edible marijuana sold in Pitkin County compared with the number of hospital visits,” he said, “it makes me wonder if the problem’s as rampant as we believe it is, as far as edibles and overdoses.”
To get an idea what he’s talking about, it’s helpful to take a look at a few numbers.
Greg Schoenfeld works for a market research company in Denver called BDS Analytics, Inc., which has been able to tap into and track sales at 100 Colorado marijuana dispensaries. From that data, his company has been able to determine that, statewide, 56 percent of sales come from flower or smokable marijuana, 21 percent come from concentrates or oils and 14 percent come from edibles.
Next, we look at statistics from the city of Aspen, which tell us that dispensaries in town sold $8.35 million worth of marijuana in 2015.
Fourteen percent of $8.35 million is $1.7 million, a rough estimate of how much marijuana-edible product was sold in Aspen last year. If we assume that each of those purchases averaged $25, that means there were 46,760 individual edible marijuana sales in Aspen in 2015.
Now, we turn to Aspen Valley Hospital, which tracks the number of marijuana-poisoning cases doctors treat every year but doesn’t discern between the type of marijuana product that caused the poisoning, hospital spokesperson Ginny Dyche said. In other words, the hospital can’t say whether edibles, concentrates or flower were responsible for the cases it sees.
Nonetheless, the numbers are revealing.
In 2014, AVH treated 16 people for marijuana poisoning, with four of the cases involving someone 19 years old and younger. Seventeen people were treated for the problem in 2015, including two who were 19 and younger. So far this year, 21 people have been treated for marijuana poisoning, though just one was 19 or younger, according to the hospital’s statistics.
If we take the 2015 edibles sales numbers and assume that 100 percent of last year’s marijuana poisoning hospital visits were caused by ingesting edibles, that means 0.036 percent of those who bought edible marijuana products in Aspen last year ended up in the hospital for marijuana poisoning.
If we look at how many children 19 and younger ended up in the hospital in 2015, we discover that 0.004 percent of sales led to the poisoning of a child.
“Do these numbers constitute a ban?” DiSalvo said. “Is it something to be so reactionary over as to consider a ban on edibles?”
The sheriff said he doesn’t want to see anyone end up in the hospital. However, he pointed out that hundreds of people have spent time in the county’s alcohol detox facility during the past few years.
“Does X number of detoxes constitute a ban on alcohol?” DiSalvo said.
Alcohol sales in Aspen, by the way, outpaced marijuana sales by just $1.25 million in 2015, according to city statistics.
DiSalvo also pointed to recent legislation passed by the state, which he said constitutes reasonable and responsible ways to curb accidental edibles ingestion.
The first of those laws took effect July 1 and banned all marijuana edibles in the shape of people, animals or fruits, so goodbye pot gummi bears. The second, which will go into effect Oct. 1, requires all edibles to be stamped with a “THC” symbol.
A recently published study from the Denver area sheds more light on the subject.
That study looked at the number of kids who have gone to Children’s Hospital in Denver after accidentally ingesting marijuana, as well as calls to one Front Range poison control center.
It found that emergency room visits nearly doubled from 1.2 per 100,000 in the two years prior to legalization to 2.3 per 100,000 in 2014 and 2015. The number of poison control calls increased from nine in 2009 to 47 in 2015, a more than five-fold increase, according to the study published in the JAMA Pediatrics medical journal.
Most of those cases involved infused edibles — which kids got from family members, friends or a babysitter — that were not in childproof packaging or came as the result of poor child supervision or poor edibles storage, according to the study.
Still, the study points out that accidental marijuana ingestion is responsible for a small number of overall accidental exposures.
Sixteen kids ages 9 and under went to the emergency room for the problem in 2015, which accounts for six of every 1,000 visits for accidental ingestion, the study states. Poison control center calls for the same group account for two of every 1,000 calls, according to the study.
The median age of the children who ingested the marijuana was about 2 years old for both the emergency room visits and the poison control center calls, according to the study.
Joe Hodas, chief marketing officer of Denver-based edibles producer Dixie Elixirs and Edibles, called those numbers “a minor, minor drop in the bucket” compared to ingestion of other poisonous household products like laundry detergent “pods.”
He also pointed out that no amount of edibles stamping — which likely couldn’t be read by a 2-year-old anyway — or shape-changing — a 2-year-old is not likely to pass up a gummi “disc” either — can trump parental responsibility.
“Here’s the thing … the best way to keep it out of the hands of kids is to keep it out of the hands of kids,” Hodas said. “To leave an unwrapped product on the counter in reach of kids is unlawful.”
“If you’re a parent and you have a 4-year-old in the house, it’s incumbent on you to keep it away from them,” he said. “The responsibility clearly lies on parents to secure the product.”
As for older kids — those in middle and high school — Mueller said she’s not worried.
“Kids are telling us they’re not that interested in edibles,” she said. “When they want to get high, they want to get high (now). They don’t want to wait an hour.
“They’re not into having a glass of wine and a cookie.”
Tharyn Mulberry, principal at Aspen High School, seconded those comments, saying his staff doesn’t often catch students with marijuana edibles. During the 2015-2016 school year, he said less than five students were caught with edibles.
“It’s not the primary (source of ingestion) at all,” Mulberry said.
The most common method of marijuana ingestion by students Mulberry said he runs into is smoking, followed by the use of vaporizers, then edibles. In fact, he said he thinks the use of vaporizers is far more likely to increase in the future among high school students because they are so easily concealed.
“I wonder how many adults even know what a vape pen looks like,” Mulberry said.
Accidental ingestion by adults makes up the vast majority of cases seen at Aspen Valley Hospital since 2014, according to the statistics.
Alec Orr, manager of the Native Roots dispensary in Aspen, said he’s been working in the industry since legalization began in 2014. He said he used to receive frequent calls from people who ingested too much edible marijuana product. However, since the state passed a law requiring each serving to contain no more than 10 milligrams, those calls have stopped.
“That made a huge difference,” Orr said.
Education efforts have increased too, which helps, he said.
Native Roots, which has stores across the state, hands out a flier with recommendations for edibles titled “Know Your Limits.” It includes recommended low dosing levels for beginners and instructions to wait between 30 minutes and two hours for edibles to take effect.
“Right now we’re all about education,” he said. “It takes a lot of time to educate people.”
As for the question of edibles coming in the form of sweet treats rather than simply a pill to swallow — Orr said people want to enjoy the ingestion and not think of it as medicine.
DiSalvo said he’s been told the act of eating marijuana-infused products becomes ritualistic for some connoisseurs.
Hodas of Dixie Elixirs said sweet treats have been part of marijuana culture “as long as it’s been around.” Legalization did not lead to the advent of cookies, brownies and other sugary creations, he said.
“Adults enjoy these products,” he said. “Taking a pill is not an experience.”
Whether commissioners do anything about marijuana edibles remains to be seen. DiSalvo said he and the Valley Marijuana Council are shooting for mid-September to bring any possible recommendations to both Pitkin County commissioners and the Aspen City Council.
However, it remains to be seen exactly what those recommendations might be.
“I’m now leaning toward thinking (any problems with kids and edibles) can be fixed with responsible storage,” DiSalvo said.
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