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One Death Doesn't Mean Marijuana Edibles Are Dangerous, It Means We Need Better Education and Labeling

Regulation keeps them from being an iffy proposition.
 
 
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The recent death of a 19-year-old exchange student has led to a surge of concerns about the safety and regulation of edible products in Colorado. Levy Thamba of the Republic of Congo allegedly ate marijuana edibles in Denver during spring break with friends in March, then jumped from a hotel room balcony later that night. Thamba’s is the first death officially related to “marijuana intoxication” on a coroner’s report since Colorado legalized marijuana in January 2013.

While Thamba’s death is tragic, it is not a realistic indication of a larger public threat. Thamba’s friends also ate the edibles that night, and thousands if not millions of people eat marijuana edibles every day without issue. In California, hundreds of medical dispensaries have sold countless edible marijuana treats to sick people since the '90s, and nothing like Thamba’s tragedy has been reported. In its coverage of Levy Thamba’s death, CBS Denver spoke with a doctor who reported that marijuana intakes in the emergency room are rare while alcohol-related intakes happen every day. Very little has been reported about other possible underlying factors in Thamba's death, and medical professionals remain baffled by this incident because it is so far from the norm.

If anything, Thamba’s story proves the need for better drug education in the U.S. Many things about the incident remain unclear, including the amount of edibles Thamba consumed. It has been reported that that night was the first time Thamba ever used marijuana, and Thamba and his friends did not know the dosage of THC (the psychoactive part of the plant) they were consuming per edible because their edibles had not been tested.

Additionally, edibles take much longer to kick in than smoked marijuana and often people become impatient and assume they haven't taken enough, then end up eating much more than they should. This often causes intense feelings of panic, which it sounds like Thamba may have experienced. Because of the way edibles are metabolized and absorbed in the body, their psychoactive effect is five times stronger than smoked marijuana, and on average edibles take one to two hours to kick in, about four hours to peak, and about eight hours to finish—but Thamba and his friends probably did not know this. It’s also possible Thamba and his friends were unaware that cannabis consumption alone cannot kill you, which may have lessened the overall panic. No one has ever overdosed on pot.

Alec Dixon of Santa Cruz, Calif. works at a cannabis testing lab called SC Labs, which tests cannabis samples for possible contaminants like pesticides and foodborne germs. Dixon also works as an educator for medical marijuana patients in the area, teaching them about safe ways to consume cannabis. One of the main things he tells people is not to consume edibles the first time they use marijuana, and if they must start out with edibles, to take it slow and make sure they know how much they’re taking.

“If you eat an edible you don’t know, unless it's been tested by a lab, how many milligrams [of THC] are in it,” said Dixon. “Edibles are kind of tricky because your experience with cannabis—whether you're new to it or you’ve been smoking for a long time—and your body weight—say a 200-pound man versus a 105-pound cancer patient—that plays a big role. That’s why it’s so important to know how many milligrams you’re taking.”

No Universal Standards

In most parts of the country, testing labs are still few and far between if they exist at all. Edibles are a popular, sometimes necessary, alternative for patients with serious illnesses or those who simply don’t want to breath smoke, and they generally taste good. But because the U.S. government still considers all things cannabis strictly illegal, there are no universal standards in place for edibles. Throughout the 20 states (and Washington D.C.) that have legalized marijuana for medical or recreational purposes, there are many different manufacturers working with many different strains and differing rates of quality, so it's difficult to know how high you're going to get from any given edible, and what the effects will be. There are no government regulations, no general labeling standards, and the federal agencies that normally oversee food safety aren’t testing marijuana food products for contaminants like mold, pesticides and foodborne illnesses.