An enjoyable morning quickly turned into a serious political debate during a Women in Government breakfast meeting this summer. Several people from Colorado had come to Alaska for the WIG conference and I happened to be sitting at their table. After we compared the fishing and recreational opportunities between the two states, the discussion turned to the marijuana initiative. I asked what their experience has been the last eighteen months since the initiative was passed. The conversation stopped. One person finally said, "We had no idea."
I learned that the biggest issue was the concentration of the psychoactive compound tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) being infused into edibles, such as gummy bears and cookies. The initiative was sold to voters as having the freedom to "light up a joint," to enjoy the nostalgic pleasure many associated with the counterculture of the 60's and 70's. And secondly, to capture tax revenue from a viable industry. What has occurred in Colorado since January has been different.
The term "chemical warfare" comes to mind. Joining us at the table was Colorado State Rep. Polly Lawrence who said, "This isn't the pot your parents smoked 30 years ago. Today's substance is so much stronger." She explained that the producers refine the cannabis plant to create a THC oil that is highly concentrated, as well as colorless and odorless. Then the oil is infused into edibles.
A person cannot tell the difference between a normal edible from one that has been infused with THC, until the effects kick in several minutes later, but by then they have probably eaten a second helping. Unlike the alcohol industry, which is highly regulated with alcohol levels clearly marked on easily identifiable bottles and cans, food that has been infused with THC looks and tastes the same as uninfused food.
Naturally mistakes are made by unsuspecting individuals who eat something they think is innocuous when it in fact isn't. And it doesn't take much. A very small edible, such as a single brownie, could be enough to make a person experience an overdose of THC. This is particularly worrisome for younger people whose bodies are smaller and can't absorb high doses of the drug as easily as a full-grown adult.
What does an overdose mean? I spoke with Dr. Chris Colwell, the medical director of Emergency Medicine in Denver, who said since the availability of recreational marijuana, there has been a big jump in emergency room visits due to THC overdose, which he attributes to the lack of regulation for THC levels in edibles. Dr. Colwell said a THC overdose is generally not life threatening, but what worries him are the decisions people make while experiencing an overdose. He has seen those decisions be tragic and permanent.
Dr. Colwell's parting personal recommendation: "Do not make it legal until Alaska can regulate it in a meaningful way."
Colorado is trying to regulate the industry, but it's a long and slow process, says Colorado State Rep. Lois Landgraff. "It's been a legislative nightmare." In the meantime, consumers are assuming the risk as they act as test subjects in an unregulated experiment.
Taylor Bickford, head of the Alaska's Campaign to Regulate Marijuana like Alcohol, said that Washington state rolled out its recreational industry with tighter controls and better regulations. He added that if the initiative passes, there will be a 9-month rulemaking period before recreational sales can begin. It's been my experience that public policy moves at glacial speed. Nine months may not be enough time to hash out the details.
Alaskan citizens, know what you are voting for this November. If it's the freedom to smoke a joint, we already have that with our current laws. If it's to decriminalize marijuana, maybe we can do that without making it an industry. If it's intended to raise money, Colorado Sen. Randy Baumgarder says the tax revenue has been "significantly less than we expected." Regulation costs and social costs appear to exceed any tax income generated.
Please ask yourself, are the rewards worth the risk?
Natasha Von Imhof is a board member of the Atwood Foundation, Rasmuson Foundation and the Anchorage School Board. The opinions expressed in this op-ed piece are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of the organizations of which she is affiliated.