Dave Silberman is an attorney and pro bono legalization advocate in Middlebury. This column does not represent the views of any client. You can find him on Twitter at @DaveSilberman.
Colorado’s first-in-the-nation experiment with cannabis legalization, started in 2014, has largely been going extremely well. Independent analysts and the state’s own top regulator report that regulated retailers have captured over 70% of the market, quickly displacing the illegal dealers. Colorado collected $160 million in cannabis taxes and license fees in the first 10 months of 2016, including over $18 million in October alone, so much money that Colorado has run out of schools to build and is now using excess revenues to fund an anti-bullying campaign. Teen cannabis use has not gone up. The roads are as safe as they were before.
But no system is perfect, and Colorado has struggled to address one problem in particular: the misuse of cannabis-infused “edibles.” Hospitals have reported sporadic cases of children accidentally consuming their parents’ cannabis-infused candy and needing their stomachs pumped. Maureen Dowd famously wrote of accidentally eating an entire cannabis chocolate bar meant to serve 16, because the label didn’t say how much is a single portion, and suffering through a night of paranoid hallucinations in her Denver hotel room (she was fine the next morning; there is no such thing as a fatal overdose of cannabis). The media has occasionally seized on false reports of cannabis candy being handed out to Halloween trick-or-treaters (fake news strikes in many places; this criminal activity has never actually occurred).
It is no surprise, then, that Governor Phil Scott recently said “I hope they hear me loud and clear” that the Legislature needs to “deal with the edibles issue” when cannabis legalization returns to the agenda in the coming session. I strongly agree: smart, targeted regulations are much more effective at promoting public health and safety than the continuation of Vermont’s failed policy of prohibition. The focus should be on three key areas: labeling, packaging, and physical format.
The Legislature should require that all cannabis-infused edibles be accompanied by clear, accurate labeling that informs the consumer regarding strength and dosage, including how long to wait before the effects are felt, and potential allergens. A universal symbol indicating the presence of THC should be stamped or imprinted on the label, and each ready-to-eat product should be packaged only in standardized single servings. Packaging should be child-resistant, opaque and free of fanciful images, to reduce appeal to minors.
Additionally, the Legislature should prohibit the sale of cannabis-infused candy and other form factors (such as fruit-flavored “vaping” liquids) that are especially appealing to children. Yes, lollypops and gummy bears are a popular and perhaps even relatively healthful alternative to ingesting cannabis through smoking, but the risk of accidental ingestion by children inherently drawn to such products clearly outweighs any benefits. Combinations of THC with nicotine and/or alcoholic beverages should also be prohibited, to discourage cannabis users from simultaneously using these other, more harmful, substances. And, under a regulated system, the Department of Health can, and should, engage in a public information campaign to educate consumers on safe storage and use of cannabis-infused products.
These are not radical notions. The Legislature has already required, in Act 168 of 2016, that Vermont’s edible products sold by medical cannabis dispensaries be placed in child-resistant packaging with informative, accurate labeling. Other states have moved in similar directions, including Colorado, which on October 1 implemented new regulations banning candies and requiring better labeling. These are common-sense, public-health-first drug policy choices that will work where prohibition has failed.
Our new Governor is right to insist that the Legislature consider the topic deeply in any law to regulate sale of cannabis for adult use. My hope is that he is actually interested in finding sensible solutions that promote public health, and not just delaying much-needed drug policy reform through obfuscation and scare tactics.