Why Marijuana Edibles Are Harder to Regulate And Don't Get You as High

PHOTO: Employees restock edibles at Denver Kush Club in Denver, Colorado on Jan. 1, 2014.
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Move over Alice B. Toklas.

Her hashish-infused fudge -- a mélange of fruit, nuts, spices and cannabis -- was the rage of expatriate Paris in the 1950s, and her recipe for psychedelic brownies were the subject of a 1968 cult Peter Sellers film, "I Love You, Alice B. Toklas."

Now, in Colorado, where recreational use of marijuana took effect this year, consumers can choose from sodas, candies and even THC-laden beef jerky to get their Rocky Mountain high.

Purveyors like Dixie Elixirs offer everything from chai mints to chocolate truffles and elixirs in flavors such as Old Fashioned Sarsaparilla to Sparkling Pomegranate, and retailers say they edibles are flying off shelves.

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But the state is only beginning to get up to speed regulating these cannabis edibles, and experts say there will be new challenges arising every day. For a start, the state cannot rely on either the investigative expertise of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the regulatory know-how of the Food and Drug Administration – marijuana is illegal at the federal level.

"There are going to be hundreds of questions on the legal and health side that no one was able to foresee when the voters pulled the lever," said Paul Doering, professor of pharmacy practice and co-director of the Drug Information and Pharmacy Resource Center at the University of Florida.

Marijuana edibles fly off the shelves.

"I am very focused on product quality and the steps taken by the manufacturers of pharmaceutical drugs are so extreme and complex that the average consumer can have reasonable certainty that when they take 325 milligrams of aspirin, their tablet contains 325 milligrams," said Doering.

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Voters approved Amendment 64 in December 2012, which made it legal for anyone over the age of 21 to use or possess up to an ounce of marijuana for any purpose.

"Colorado is learning the hard way that there is a lot more to do when have pledged to the citizenry to have a highly regulated marijuana industry," said Doering. "It's an oxymoron almost right from the start."

Edibles stand to be big business in Colorado since licensed marijuana retail stores opened Jan. 1, but how will consumers know these products are safe?

The Colorado Department of Public Health has not been involved in regulation, because part of its budget is federally funded. So the Marijuana Enforcement Division of the Department of Revenue is overseeing regulation of the entire industry.

"We had four months to get all these regulations together," said Daria Serna, a spokesman for the Department of Revenue. "The legislation was passed and we had a tight timeline."

"We rely on experts," she told ABCNews.com. "The governor signed an executive order to create a task force and it was clear, he wanted everyone at the table -- elected officials, people from the medical marijuana industry ... educators and scientists. We are all working together."

According to a fact sheet from Denver Public Health, there are no recorded cases of overdose deaths from marijuana, but it says it can cause accidents and medical problems that can lead to death.

Joe Hodas, chief marketing officer for Dixie Elixirs and Edibles, said his company is building a new 30,000-square-foot manufacturing facility and warehouse to keep up with the appetite for marijuana food products.

"Demand's been huge," Hodas told ABC News' Denver affiliate KMGH-TV. "And our employees have been just killing it working 'round the clock."

These edibles are prepared like any other food, but cannabis oil is added to the recipe. They are designed for those who do not like the coughing and choking of inhaling pot smoke or who are looking for a discrete way to get high in places where smoking is not allowed.

The cannabis plant contains 500 different chemicals, 66 of which are cannabinoids and have an intoxicating effect, according to Doering. The chief psychoactive substance is tetrahydrocannabinol or THC.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, because THC's behavioral effects are "unique," it cannot be classified as a stimulant, sedative, tranquilizer or hallucinogen. "Recreational doses are highly variable and users often titer their own dose."

The state requires child-proof packaging that requires a serving size contain no more than 10 milligrams of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. By comparison, a 26 mg per dose would be prescribed medically for nausea, not to exceed six doses of this size per day.

Labeling also states that the edible product, unlike smoking marijuana, has a "delayed effect."

And therein lies the problem with oral consumption of marijuana, according to Doering -- the dosages can be inconsistent because of the variety of products with variable compositions.

The chemicals in marijuana are also not very stable, he said, particularly in food.

"My first concern is not about health risks, but that is all dosage forms in elixirs, cookies, candies and soda pop can't possibly be stable in all different deliveries of the drug," said Doering. "What a lot of people enjoy about marijuana is the rapid onset from smoking - within minutes the effect begins to take place in the brain."

The reason is that the lungs have a large surface area with one single cellular membrane that separates the drug from the blood stream. "Like crack, cocaine and nicotine, it's a very efficient and rapid way to get in the body," said Doering.

When cannabis is eaten, the absorption rate is slow and the duration is longer.

"The person is not apt to get what they are looking for -- the familiar high they get in smoking," he said. "Only 4 to 20 percent of the THC even makes it to the bloodstream at all. A good portion is destroyed in the stomach or the first pass through the liver."

"Where the problem comes in when a person expects to get that familiar buzz, decides it's not working, and eat another brownie," said Doering.

"I truly think that edible dosage forms are going to be immensely unpopular with the recreation user whose primary goal is to get high and to get high now," he said. "Of course, if one is good, two must be better. And if two is not enough, then four would be that much better."

Doering concedes that "few people have died of overdoses" on THC. But anxiety attacks are common.

"You feel like you are going to die," he said. "The body releases adrenaline, there can be nausea, vomiting and profuse sweating – all the things that go along with someone who might smoke an extra potent marijuana or hashish."

Meanwhile, Colorado has continued to consult with experts in food safety and regulation. Edible products manufacturers, public health officials, state regulators and laboratory owners were part of a series of meetings last fall and some new rules are being phased in this year.

"We just need to continue to refine the rules as we go," said Department of Revenue spokeswoman Serna. "It's a new industry and we are always looking for feedback from law enforcement and experts in the field. We are really working together and trying to make sure we do a really good job and everyone has a seat at the table."

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