Editor's Note: This article is the eighth part in a series of articles and video documentaries that surveys the state of the legal marijuana and hemp industries.
DENVER—On March 10, a college student from Wyoming bought four marijuana cookies for herself and her three friends at the 16th Street Mall in Denver.
Late into the night, restless and exhibiting erratic behavior, 19-year-old Levy Thamba leapt over the fourth-floor railing of a Holiday Inn into the lobby. He was pronounced dead at 3:51 a.m.
Thamba’s tragic death highlighted the deceptive nature of THC-infused foods: They affect the human body later in time after ingestion than smoked bud.
The case is not the only disturbing episode connected to marijuana edibles since Colorado opened up the market for legal recreational marijuana eight months ago. Some children have gotten their hands on edibles, and landed in the emergency room, while one man who allegedly killed his wife—and faces a first-degree murder charge—was said to have eaten pot candy beforehand.
The incidents have prompted changes in marijuana policies that are intended to make edibles safer to consume, keep them away from minors, and educate Coloradans and visitors on the differences between marijuana food and pot that you smoke.
Eating an edible is not like taking a shot of whiskey or smoking marijuana, said Ron Kammerzell, senior director of enforcement with the Colorado Department of Revenue. “You need to give yourself enough time to make sure you are feeling the effects of marijuana before you consume additional edibles," he said in a phone interview.
While the effects of smoked bud are rather immediate, edibles are deceptive because it can take hours to feel anything from the THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. Thamba, a native of Africa who was on spring break from Northwest College in Powell, Wyoming, may not have known that.
Bessie Gondwe, one of his college friends with whom he was staying at the Holiday Inn, told Denver police she had purchased the cookies and it was the first time she believed Thamba had ingested marijuana. During a search of the hotel room, police found wrappers with labels that identified the marijuana products as “Sweet Grass Kitchen, lemon poppy seed cookie."
Gondwe and another friend staying in the room with Thamba told authorities the college students had begun eating the cookies around midnight. Each of the four cookies contained 65 milligrams (mg) of THC, or the equivalent of 6.5 servings; an employee at the marijuana store advised the students that they should split the cookie into six pieces and eat one piece at a time, according to the police report.
But Thamba revealed he wasn’t feeling anything from the marijuana cookie so he ate the rest of the edible all at once, Gondwe told police. Later in the night, the police report detailed, Thamba exhibited strange behavior—screaming, speaking in French, apologizing for criminal behavior that he had not committed, smashing fixtures and finally jumping off the balcony.
Thamba’s autopsy report said the cause of death was the result of “multiple injuries due to a fall from a height" and listed “marijuana intoxication" as “a significant contributing factor." The college friends weren’t aware that Thamba had consumed any alcohol or other drugs, and other than detecting THC in his system, the blood results revealed no other “positive findings of toxicological significance."
Limiting THC in Each Edible
In the wake of his death, Colorado regulators have adopted rules that are designed to encourage marijuana edible companies to make pot treats that contain no more than 10 mg of THC. Under emergency rules that were adopted on August 1, if a marijuana edible is more than 10 mg and up to 100 mg, “you have to score it or demark it in such a way that it is intuitively obvious to the consumer how to break off a serving size of that edible," said Kammerzell of the Colorado Department of Revenue.
State regulators also gave marijuana edible makers an incentive to make products containing no more than 10 mg. If they do so, their products will be tested for potency fewer times than other edibles. Even before the emergency rule was adopted, a number of manufacturers had moved toward individual serving sizes of 10 mg, Kammerzell said.
“There is no lethal dose for marijuana other than maybe a 500-pound brick of it falling on your head, but we don’t want people to have a bad experience or get to the point where they are not functional," said Andy Williams, president of Medicine Man, a marijuana dispensary in Denver.
As part of a responsible vendor training program modeled after one administered by the state’s liquor enforcement division, it is expected that marijuana establishments will educate consumers on the differences between eating an edible and smoking marijuana.
Williams and the owner of a recreational marijuana dispensary north of Boulder said their employees, or budtenders as they are affectionately known, already warn customers about edibles.
“We take the extra step at the counter to really educate people on how to use them safely, how to get familiar with the effect of edibles," said Dylan Donaldson of Karing Kind, who estimated edibles constitute 30 to 40 percent of sales on an average day. “It is quite different. It’s a whole other beast."
Protecting Kids from Inadvertent Consumption
That beast has sickened some kids in Colorado. Since recreational marijuana was legalized on Jan. 1, “Children’s [Hospital] Colorado has treated 13 children, six of whom became critically ill from edible marijuana," said Natalie Goldstein, a spokeswoman with the hospital, in an email last month.
In a May interview with the Denver Post, Michael DiStefano, the medical director of the hospital’s emergency department, said a number of children who accidentally ingested marijuana had been admitted for sedation or agitation and one child suffered breathing problems that required a respirator.
Earlier this year, a 10-year-old boy in Greeley, Colorado admitted to selling marijuana to other students on the playground while another child came to school with a THC-infused candy bar, according to CBS4. The kids reportedly obtained the pot from home where it was purchased by their grandparents.
Edibles today hardly are limited to the marijuana brownies of the 1990s. Other than the THC, the treats are the same ones kids savor at home and school: cookies, gummy bears, Lollipops.
“In Colorado, there is almost no limit to what marijuana can be put into whether that is infused or baked or sprayed," said Rachel O’Bryan of Smart Colorado, an organization that is dedicating to protecting Colorado youth and advocates for policies that limit early marijuana consumption.
Said state Rep. Frank McNulty: “Many of these marijuana edibles look just like kids’ snacks."
The Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division requires that a seal be placed on packaging of marijuana products, but “that doesn’t mean anything to most kids or parents," said McNulty, a Republican who represents Highlands Ranch, a suburb south of Denver.
Colorado lawmakers have moved to solve the problem. House Bill 1366, signed in May by Gov. John Hickenlooper, required that Colorado’s state licensing authority convene a stakeholder group to discuss recommendations on how to make edibles clearly identifiable.
Members of the working group include a wide range of interests from law enforcement representatives and a school resource officer to a marijuana baker and testing facility owner. An initial meeting was held on Aug. 1, and a second meeting is scheduled for Sept. 11 in Denver. Rules will be adopted no later than January 2016.
“It’s going to be a challenging topic for sure," Kammerzell said.
But the edibles rule, once implemented, could save Colorado kids from unnecessary trips to the ER.