This October, Washington’s first edible cannabis products were made available for purchase. Considering how long ago the historic laws legalizing recreational marijuana use were passed and how high the demand for edible products has been, why are these products only now hitting the shelves? The answer to this question provides an excellent illustration of how regulators are struggling in the uncharted waters of legal, recreational marijuana.
‘Emergency’ edible rules adopted one year after legalization
The delay in approving edible products was due to changing rules regulating how edibles are made and labeled. The primary issue was not regarding the substance of the new “emergency” rules, but rather the fact that they were adopted over a year after recreational marijuana was legalized. Although these rules only apply in Washington, we need to look to Colorado to understand why the scramble for these changes occurred.
Lessons learned from Colorado
Colorado legalized recreational marijuana at the same time as Washington, but legalization took different forms in the two states from the start.
For starters, Colorado opened its first licensed recreational cannabis stores on Jan. 1, 2014, more than six months before Washington. As a result, the Washington State Liquor Control Board, the agency in charge of regulating the state’s recreational marijuana policy, had the benefit of learning from Colorado’s experience.
Although initial reports of legalization in Colorado were largely positive, concerns began to arise regarding edible cannabis products.
The New York Times highlights overdose threats, LCB takes note
The most high-profile story describing the potential dangers of these products was published in The New York Times. In an article written by Maureen Dowd, the columnist described her first-hand experience with eating cannabis chocolate and the intensely unpleasant night that followed.
Dowd later learned that the chocolate was supposed to be cut into smaller pieces. She was inexperienced with marijuana, and the label did not indicate serving sizes; the unfortunate result was that she ended up eating far more than she should have.
In her article, Dowd also referenced accounts of children who accidently ingested cannabis, as well as two incidents of death associated with these products. Although it was very late in the game in relation to other aspects of legalization, the LCB, or the liquor control board, quickly responded to these concerns before any edibles could be sold in Washington.
The Maureen Dowd article was published on June 3, 2014, the LCB voted on the new regulations on June 25, and on July 7, a spokesperson for the LCB announced the adoption of the new rules.
Although the first recreational shops were set to open the next day, the LCB had not licensed a single producer of infused products because of these new concerns. This meant that the newly opened shops would not be selling edible products for months.
To protect novices, clear labels and serving sizes required
The new rules appeared to be directly related to concerns raised by the Dowd article. The changes were designed to help novice consumers avoid accidently overindulging by adding requirements for product labels and the production of the products themselves.
For example, the labels must now state “This product contains marijuana” and serving size must be prominently displayed. If the product is a solid that contains more than one serving, the edible itself must be scored to indicate individual serving sizes. Further, and most onerously for product producers, all labels must be approved by the LCB prior to entering the market.
The LCB’s late-in-the-game rule change resulted in products being kept off the shelf for months, and this delay understandably created many difficulties for those working hard get their businesses up and running.
Although sooner would have been better, there should be comfort for sellers in knowing their customers are now far less likely to have the type of negative experience famously described by Maureen Dowd.
For an industry that has the eyes of the world upon it, anything that can help protect its reputation is a good thing.