OAKLAND, Calif. - About a week after the sale of recreational marijuana became legal in California, a woman in her 70s made this call to the poison control center in San Francisco:
I’ve just eaten a cookie. A marijuana cookie. One of my children left it behind. I didn’t realize. Until it was too late. I’ve never been high. What’s going to happen to me?
Dr. Craig Smollin, medical director of California Poison Control/San Francisco Division, relayed the gist of that call to KTVU last week as anecdotal evidence that with the legalization of edibles for anyone over the age of 21, there are likely going to be more scenarios like that. Newcomers will be ingesting edibles, and perhaps too much, for the first time, and the cannabis-infused confections might accidentally get into the wrong hands. It's especially a concern if those hands belong to children reaching for delicious-looking cookies and candies or bottles of sweet lemonade swirled with high concentrations of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive agent in marijuana.
And this situation could be exacerbated after a KTVU investigation discovered that not every dispensary, even in the pot-savvy Bay Area, has caught up with the law. Three out of nine dispensaries that were spot-checked by reporters were selling products that do not comply with state law. One dispensary in Oakland was even selling an edible brownie that contains 10 times what California's Bureau of Cannabis allows, which is 10 mg of THC per dose.
“Am I more worried?” Smollin asked. “From a healthcare perspective there is a concern there will be an uptick of people who call the health care and poison control centers regarding marijuana.”
Colorado and Washington state saw increases in marijuana-related hospital visits and calls to poison centers following the legalization of weed and the permitting of dispensaries, the Cannabist reported.
In California, the numbers of marijuana-related calls have also been going up steadily, according to statistics compiled by poison control: Last year, there were 1,274 cases, which includes calls from individuals and emergency room doctors who might need assistance; there were 922 cases in 2016 and 872 cases in 2015. Experts added however, that many of these calls are from people who took marijuana alongside another drug and the cases cannot directly be linked to overdosing on edibles.
Still, taking too much marijuana is not fun. In fact, it can feel like you're dying, even though there are no known cases of death by marijuana overdose.
Taking too much can leave people, especially first-time cannabis users, feeling paranoid, scared and as if time is standing still. One 48-year-old Oakland mom who had never been high unknowingly ate a single chocolate candy with 50 mg of THC on New Year's Eve. She sat on the couch not moving or speaking for most of the night while clutching her wrists and reported feeling as if she was in a catatonic stupor. The effects didn't wear off completely for 28 hours.
There are more stories like that.
Remember that viral audio call of a Michigan police officer who confiscated -- and then ate -- way too many marijuana brownies with his wife and called 911 to request someone rescue him? And there is the now-famous story of New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who had an edible nightmare in a Denver hotel where she had eaten too much of her caramel-chocolate bar, which made her feel like “I had died and no one was telling me.” And two years ago, 19 people, including children who were as young as six, all went to the hospital in San Francisco after they accidentally ate marijuana gummy rings laid out on a tray at a quinceañera.
There's not much anyone, even an emergency room doctor, can really do for someone who had eaten too much THC other than provide “supportive care,” Smollin said. In other words, he explained, it helps to have someone who is sober at your side, talking you down and being there for you, which is what he suggested to the 70-something woman who called poison control after she had eaten an entire edible cookie, which typically have 100 mg of THC in them.
In an effort to curb anticipated edible overdosing, California law as of Jan. 1 began mandating that edible manufacturers, and the dispensaries that sell the cannabis-infused products, properly label their products.
Servings must be sold and marked in doses that contain no more than 10 mg of THC. An entire package, say a cookie or a box of candy, can’t have more than 100 mg. Before legalization, there were no limits. Although the intoxicating effects of marijuana and alcohol are different, experts equate ingesting 5 mg of TCH to two glasses of wine. Amateurs are advised to even try less, perhaps 2.5 mg of TCH, at first and wait a full two hours for the effects to kick in.
2 Investigates set out this month to find whether Bay Area dispensaries are adhering to these new packaging requirements after one cannabis activist told KTVU it was the “Wild West out there,” in terms of the dosages that were being sold. Reporters with undercover cameras fanned out to nine dispensaries in Oakland, Berkeley, San Francisco and San Jose. All of the dispensaries had a bouncer at the door carding IDs to make sure customers were older than 21 and didn’t have felony warrants out for them. All of the dispensaries also had friendly staff.
But one third of the cannabis retailers that KTVU reporters and producers visited were selling products with too much THC. At one dispensary, for example, there was a cannabis brownie with 1,000 mg of THC – ten times the amount allowed. At another dispensary, there was an olive oil with 800 mg of THC, a fact that a customer wouldn’t know because there was no labeling on the bottle – KTVU only learned of that amount when the undercover reporter specifically asked. Another dispensary was selling candies with 25 mg of THC, more than twice the amount that’s allowed, and the employee suggested the reporter “take two” for her first time.
KTVU is not naming the dispensaries and is blurring out the faces of the employees. The point of the investigation wasn’t to specifically call out any one dispensary. It was to find out what was really being sold to consumers, and to educate people, especially who might be new to cannabis, on what they should be looking for and asking about so as not to overdose.
To be fair, while these packaging and labeling laws are now in effect, dispensaries are allowed to sell last year's higher-dose products until July 1 – as long as they are labeled at the store properly with some kind of proper label or sticker. The three dispensaries 2 Investigates found selling edibles with too much THC per dose did not have such labeling.
At Kiva Confections in Oakland, COO and co-founder Kristi Knoblich Palmer takes the new labeling laws seriously. She and her husband, Scott Palmer, have hired extra staff to relabel the company’s chocolate bars and chocolate-covered blueberries, and place them heavy-duty child-proof packaging, also required by law. It’s taking her twice as long to get the product out, she said on a recent tour of the chocolate-making factory in an industrial part of the city, where workers in white hairnets and lab coats meticulously infuse cannabis into the confections.
Palmer likened her business -- which feels part science lab, part Willy Wonka -- to a pharmaceutical company. She quality-controls her products to make sure they taste good and have just the right about of THC, which she sends off to a lab to test after each batch. “That’s how they do it with Advil,” she said, “to make sure each pill has 200 mg.”
In fact at Kiva, Palmer and her husband are choosing to dial back the dosage. They are now making doses that break off in 5 mg chunks -- even though the law requires 10 mg -- because Palmer said she’s found that smaller amount might give first-time users a “better experience.”
It’s in her best interest to follow the dosing requirements. Not only is it the law, but she has found that recreational users, for the most part, want a little something to take the edge off, and they certainly don’t want to be calling 911 after taking a bite of her edibles.
“We make products that are easy to dose for new and existing cannabis consumers,” she said. “We make sure they're delicious and consistent with every batch that we produce. It’s all about finding your dose.”
What you need to know: Experts say that if you're trying edibles for the first time, take 2.5 mg or 5 mg of THC, the psychoactive agent in marijuana. Wait a full two hours for effects to kick in. Do not eat any more while you're waiting. If you take too much, you might feel paranoid and that time is moving very slowly. Having a friend nearby can be helpful. The effects might wear off in a few hours, but they might also take 24 or 28 hours to wear off. No one has ever died from a marijuana overdose.
KTVU's Simone Aponte, Ryan Moran and Tony Hodrick contributed to this report.