Alaska marijuana regulators are considering loosening restrictions on edible marijuana products in the state. The regulation change would double the amount of THC, the plant’s psychoactive compound, allowed in a single serving.
Proponents of the change say it would benefit the industry, giving manufacturers more flexibility and saving money for them and for consumers. Alaska’s limit on edibles is currently the strictest compared with other states where recreational marijuana is legal, and some states allow much higher doses.
Still, some worry that the change could have a negative public health effect and cause an increase in accidental overconsumption and emergency calls related to marijuana.
The proposed change, under consideration by the state Marijuana Control Board, would increase the allowed content in a single serving from 5 to 10 milligrams of THC, and for a single package of edibles from 50 to 100 milligrams of THC total. So, for example, a package of cookies could contain up to 100 milligrams of THC, and each cookie could contain a 10 milligram dose.
Lacy Wilcox, president of the Alaska Marijuana Industry Association, said the industry wants the regulation change because it will help bring its products in line with what its consumers want.
“From a business perspective, or an economic perspective, when you’re able to have this more standardized dose, it decreases your cost to produce,” Wilcox said. “The more potent a product is, the less of those products you might need to make. The average consumer of cannabis is going to need more than 5 milligrams — they’re going to need perhaps even more than 50 milligrams.”
The Marijuana Control Board is taking public comment on the proposal until Friday at 4:30 p.m. It is scheduled to take up the matter at its next meeting on March 31.
In Anchorage, there is both support for the regulation change and pushback from some city officials.
Representatives from the Anchorage health and police departments expressed opposition to the proposed regulation changes to the Anchorage Assembly’s Community and Economic Development Committee during a February meeting.
“We do not necessarily support these changes due to the potential health impacts,” Anchorage Health Department Director Heather Harris told the committee. “... We’re concerned about some of the higher concentration levels posing greater risks to the public, specifically around marijuana-related poison control call concerns.”
Following the committee meeting, Anchorage Assembly members Crystal Kennedy and Jamie Allard proposed a resolution that would have officially stated opposition to the regulation change. The Assembly voted down the resolution last week.
Higher doses allowed in other states
The state’s first recreational store opened in fall 2016. Harris said that in 2017 in Alaska, there was an increase of over 75% in calls to the poison control center related to marijuana for people under the age of 20.
The total number of calls is relatively small, according to a separate state report, but pot-related calls have increased since marijuana legalization. In 2014, before legalization, there were eight total calls. In 2017, the first full year of marijuana retail, there were 31.
Callers to poison control reported physical symptoms such as heart problems, breathing issues or vomiting, and psychological symptoms like anxiety, according to the report.
A study of Alaska and Oregon Poison Control Center data between December 2015 and April 2017 found that in that time, 253 people were “acutely exposed to cannabis.” Eight were admitted into intensive care units and three of those people were intubated. One died.
The study found that neurotoxicity is common after acute exposure, and that edibles were the most common products to cause symptoms. But concentrates such as resins and liquids were associated with greater toxicity than other products.
Alaska regulations on edibles are currently the most restrictive. Most other states where marijuana is legal for recreational use allow for higher doses. Only in Oregon is the single dose and total package amount restricted similarly, Harris said.
Several states allow 10 milligram edible doses and 100 milligram packages, including Washington and Colorado, said Bruce Schulte, a member of the state’s Marijuana Control Board.
Wilcox said, “It’s not as if we’re going to exceed the standard — it’s going to be brought in line with what is common.”
Still, there isn’t widely available data for how different state regulations impact things like emergency calls related to edibles and marijuana.
“One of the big questions is, what are the other states doing, and what has their experience been? And so far, I’m not sure anybody has really had adequately addressed that question. And it’s an important one,” Schulte said.
Schulte said that when Alaska’s regulations were being developed in 2015, the state had little guidance.
“We were working in a vacuum. The only reference point that we had really were the other legalized states,” Schulte said.
They chose to proceed carefully, he said.
“There was a sense that we wanted to come out of the gate in a conservative way, understanding that Alaskans were a little nervous. Our regulators and our lawmakers were a little uncomfortable,” said Wilcox, who also helped during regulation development.
It was a starting point, so regulators could wait to see how the industry and its impacts would shake out.
Public health concerns
But some of the same public health concerns discussed then are still ongoing.
Anchorage police officer Steve Dunn, a traffic fatality investigator, told the Assembly’s committee that the municipality’s police department does not support the change because “it will substantially impact public safety.”
Next to alcohol, marijuana is the second-most detected substance in drivers, he said.
“If you’re going to use the analogy of alcohol, it’s like giving somebody four beers instead of two beers. And that obviously will increase the risk to public safety,” Dunn told the committee.
Dunn said that in 2019, about 30% of the traffic fatalities or serious collisions the department investigated involved drivers who tested positive for THC in their systems.
Dunn later clarified that the percentage does not necessarily pertain to impaired driving. The test shows both active THC and inactive metabolites of THC.
The effects of edibles can be delayed by the digestive system, Dunn said.
“There’s always a risk of overconsumption and folks that don’t feel the effects right away, instead of eating one brownie they eat two brownies,” Dunn said.
With the regulation change, the effects would be doubled, increasing the risk of overconsumption, he said.
The regulations limit how much THC can be in a package or serving, but not how many servings people consume, Assembly member Chris Constant said.
The conversation “feels a bit reefer madness,” Constant said.
To Wilcox, the fears about a public health impact lack context. A person using edibles generally knows their limits and how much they want, she said.
“They’re going to get themselves to the place they want to be, whether they have to buy 10 brownies or one brownie,” Wilcox said.
Other products currently sold that can be smoked or vaped like joints, bud and concentrate are much stronger than a 5 milligram edible, she said.
“Just a regular old bud joint is far stronger than a 5 milligram brownie. If you get out into your car and you smoke that entire joint, you’re going to be extremely, much, much higher than that 5 milligram cookie that you currently can buy,” Wilcox said. “So the person who is seeking to get that stoned is already getting that stoned.”
She also said that the number of people who choose to drive while impaired shouldn’t increase with the regulation change. Those people are already making that bad decision, she said.
Marijuana products should be treated like prescription medications, alcohol and other potentially toxic substances — they should be kept locked up and out of the reach of children and pets, Wilcox said. The amount allowed in a package should not be a concern when it is being handled responsibly, she said.
But at least one state has reported significant increases in marijuana poison calls after a regulation change, Harris said.
Harris cited Michigan as an example. In Michigan, which allows the highest dose per edible at 50 milligrams, MLive reported that number of children reported to poison control for ingesting marijuana jumped from six in 2017 to 46 in 2018, the first year of medical marijuana retail sales in the state and the same year residents voted to legalize recreational use.
That example was met with skepticism from some Assembly members. Assembly member Meg Zaletel noted that the state’s increase in poison control calls did not occur during an increase to the allowed amount of THC in edibles. Constant said that the allowed edible dose in Michigan is higher, even with Alaska’s proposed regulation change.
If the board chooses to implement the changes, the Anchorage Assembly could later choose to impose its own stricter regulations within the city and keep the edible dose limit to 5 milligrams in the municipality, Schulte said.