Colorado’s marijuana policy lesson for other states: Pay attention to potency

Looking for lessons from Colorado’s first-in-the-nation experiment in legalized recreational marijuana?

Focus on the risks to youth and young adults of rapidly rising potency.

Colorado’s radically new, ultra-potent marijuana products bear little or no resemblance to the pot today’s parents may recall from their younger years.

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Baggies of loose leaves and passing around thin, relatively weak joints are definitely passé.

In Colorado, those images now seem quaint compared to the popular dab rigs, whose users heat nearly pure marijuana resin, known as wax or shatter, with blow torches.

Other marijuana products are much more discreet — and nearly impossible for parents to spot in their kids’ bedrooms or backpacks.  

These days in Colorado’s commercial recreational market we’re seeing marijuana rectal and vaginal suppositories, inhalers that look just like asthma relief medicine, camouflaged electronic vape devices, odorless powders and of course the omnipresent marijuana-infused drinks and foods.  

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Reassuring statistics about relatively unchanged youth marijuana use rates after legalization in Colorado hide this disturbing trend: Significantly more teens are using concentrated forms of marijuana that have unprecedented levels of THC, marijuana’s main psychoactive ingredient. 

That’s the sobering story buried in our state’s latest Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, released earlier this year. My analysis of the state data shows that in 2017 over one third of Colorado high school marijuana users consumed highly potent, distilled THC concentrates in a given month.

The message is clear: These widely available and dangerously potent commercial marijuana products are getting into the hands of teens.

While researchers have demonstrated that marijuana harms developing brains, studies of these newer products with unprecedented levels of THC have lagged far behind Colorado’s rapidly evolving commercial marijuana market.

Colorado regulators are simply outgunned.

Because marijuana remains illegal under federal law, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t monitor marijuana products for safety.

That leaves state or local regulators as the last line of defense. But Colorado regulators are always lagging behind the extremely well-funded marijuana industry’s nonstop innovation. One Colorado official compared their work to chasing cheetahs with butterfly nets.  

In the early 1990s, the average THC content in marijuana was roughly 3.8 percent, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Colorado reports that in 2017 marijuana concentrates averaged 68.6 percent THC.  

Even more significant, concentrates’ share of the overall Colorado marijuana market more than doubled between 2014, when recreational marijuana became legal, and 2017, according to the state data.

Colorado has no limits on potency or types of products. This Wild West of marijuana commercialization results in products that exceed 90 percent THC and bear no resemblance to the marijuana leaf still often used to portray the drug in the media and marketing. 

This unrestrained potency is also leading to a growing threat of marijuana addiction.

We’ve posted photos of products available in Colorado’s recreational marijuana market at www.THCphotos.org, a website designed to show the reality of today’s products to those who have not visited Colorado’s more than 1,000 marijuana stores.

Because Colorado was an early adopter, our kids are serving as the canaries in the coal mine of marijuana commercialization. They only get one chance to grow up healthy and the full effect on them will take many years to determine.

But other states can learn from Colorado’s experience so they won’t be caught flat-footed by this wave of new, ultra-potent marijuana products.

When it comes to teen health, let’s pay close attention to these warning signs and make sure we take necessary steps to protect them, starting with limiting both potency and some of the riskier methods of THC consumption.

Rachel O’Bryan is a co-founder of Smart Colorado, a nonprofit started after Colorado voters legalized recreational marijuana.  Its sole focus is protecting kids. An attorney, O’Bryan has been involved in Colorado’s historic recreational marijuana legislative and regulatory process since 2013.