Don’t Eat the Whole Thing! How Edibles Became the Marijuana Industry’s Biggest Headache.

Inside Colorado's marijuana economy.
June 11 2014 8:51 AM

Don’t Eat the Whole Thing

How edibles became the marijuana industry’s biggest headache.

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Packaging edibles at the Dixie Elixirs and Edibles factory in Denver.

Courtesy of Joel Warner

In a 30,000-square-foot facility in north Denver, the 40 or so employees of Dixie Elixirs and Edibles are busy producing marijuana-infused candies, sodas, eyedroppers of sublingual Dew Drops, vape pens, massage oils, bath salts, and other marijuana goodies. In one of the facility’s several industrial kitchens, a team of hairnet-clad workers take individual chocolate Dixie Rolls from an extrusion machine and package them in swank silver wrappers. On the main factory floor, an engineer puts the finishing touches on an automated bottling line, part of the facility’s ongoing $5 million renovation project, which will soon be filling 1,000 bottles an hour with Dixie’s THC-infused “elixirs,” including flavors like mandarin, red currant, and old-fashioned sarsaparilla. Nearby, other workers fill shipping crates with the 2,000 or so products the four-year-old company ships out daily to its clientele, which comprises roughly 90 percent of all Colorado marijuana retailers.

When Dixie moved into this facility in early November, the ambitious expansion project made sense. Marijuana-infused food products seemed primed to be the big winner once Colorado’s new recreational marijuana industry launched in January. Edibles seemed fun, discreet, and consumer-friendly, with none of the health risks and fewer of the taboos associated with smoking pot.

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Equipment at the Dixie Elixirs and Edibles factory.

Courtesy of Joel Warner

But lately, while chief marketing officer Joe Hodas says Dixie still enjoys healthy sales, the products it sells have been generating troubling headlines. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd dedicated her column last week to describing how she “lay curled up in a hallucinatory state” for eight hours after eating too much of a marijuana candy bar she bought at a Denver pot shop. While Dowd’s unhappy trip quickly became the stuff of Twitter hilarity, other edibles-related incidents haven’t been so funny. Colorado hospitals are reporting an uptick in emergency room visits after children accidentally eat marijuana goodies. In March, a college student from Wyoming ate a marijuana cookie and then tumbled over a railing in a Denver hotel and fell to his death. In June, a Denver woman called 911 and said her husband had eaten a marijuana candy along with pain killers and was ranting about the end of the world—not long before he allegedly shot her to death. So why is it that the kinder, gentler version of getting high has suddenly become the industry’s biggest liability?

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Part of the problem is that while pot-infused goodies might seem like an easy way for newbies to explore marijuana use, the reality is the opposite. Colorado’s edibles industry developed over the past few years as part of the medical marijuana scene—where the clientele were anything but newbies, tolerating and often demanding a very potent product. “We didn’t have a full spectrum of demand,” explains Hodas of Dixie’s origins as a medical product. “But the market [today] is demonstrating that not everyone wants these very potent products.” It doesn’t help that, because of how it’s metabolized, edible marijuana takes much longer to kick in than the smoked version. As Dowd learned the hard way, it’s all too easy for marijuana novices to gobble up way too much of an edible before they realize just how big a dose they’ve consumed.

Colorado lawmakers made allowances for serious marijuana users by allowing recreational edibles to contain up to 100 milligrams of the psychoactive component THC, roughly equivalent to smoking three joints filled with a gram each of 15 percent THC cannabis. At the same time, however, the law seemed to have pot novices in mind when it defined each serving size of edible marijuana to be just 10 milligrams of THC. So if you’re following serving directions on each edible, a 75-milligram-THC Mile High Mint bar weighing 45 grams should be consumed in 6-gram chunks, not all at once. And an 8.5-ounce bottle of one of Dixie’s 75-milligram-THC elixirs (just over half the size of a grande Starbucks coffee) should be divvied up into 7½ servings.

Even if you abide by these directions, it’s hard to know exactly how much—or how little—THC you’re getting in each bite or gulp. In March, a Denver Post investigation found that some edibles had just a fraction of the THC listed on their labels (a package of 100-milligram-THC Dr. J’s Jelly Stones contained 0.2 milligrams of THC), while others were considerably more potent than advertised (a 100-milligram-THC Mile High Mint bar boasted 146 milligrams of THC).

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