OLYMPIA – When recreational marijuana stores open in Washington next month, state officials know many customers will be unfamiliar with the strength of the newly legal drug.
They hope strict rules on labeling and packaging will help avoid some of the overdose problems recently reported in Colorado, the only other state where recreational marijuana use is legal. But they also will launch a public education program to encourage responsible use.
“We know there will be people buying for the first time or the first time in a long time,” said Brian Smith, a spokesman for the state Liquor Control Board.
The potency of marijuana has increased in recent years as strains of the plant have been developed with higher levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical that produces the euphoric “high.”
People who have never smoked marijuana, or haven’t smoked it in decades, may be unaware of that potency, particularly if they consume the drug through edible products or vapors rather than smoking it. A couple of notorious cases in Colorado recently involved people who may have consumed higher levels of THC than they realized. One allegedly killed his spouse after eating marijuana-infused candies, the other jumped off a balcony to his death after eating marijuana-infused cookies.
Both consumed multiple doses of marijuana over a short time, prompting Colorado to order changes to its labeling and packaging rules.
Washington already has stricter labeling and packaging rules, Smith said, and isn’t considering any changes. Unlike in Colorado, marijuana candies cannot be sold in clear packaging easily confused with regular candies. They must be in opaque wrappers with poison control guidance, and the package cannot contain more than 100 milligrams of THC, which would be 10 individual doses. Those doses must be clearly marked, so the label will say if each candy or cookie represents one dose, as is often the case.
Without such warnings, the board feared the products would be too easy to overconsume. “Who eats one gummy bear?” Smith said. With marijuana candies, that may be the place to stop.
Washington companies producing edible marijuana products must comply with stricter testing requirements than Colorado to monitor the potency, and stores must keep the edible products behind the counter. But once a product is sold, it will be up to the customer to store and consume it responsibly, Smith said, keeping edible products away from children.
“Public education is going to matter,” he said. The agency has prepared a brochure to be available at all state-licensed stores; it is looking for sponsors to cover the printing costs.
The first stores could open the first week of July after passing final inspections from the agency and obtaining products from state-licensed growers and processors. All stores won’t open at once, Smith said, but the first ones will open in key cities around the state, including Spokane, where licensees have been able to secure permits from local governments and construct shops that meet state standards.