Seven months into the legal, commercial sale of marijuana, Colorado’s pot shops come in every variety. Some are grungy, with flickering green neon signs and peeling paint. Others are clean, trendy, and professional, with staffers discussing available products as hipster baristas talk about high-end coffee. Pot-laced products including candy, baked goods, oils, butters, drops, and drinks attract those who want a high without the negative health effects of smoking. But edibles have their own risks, and Colorado is finding them hard to regulate.
Problem 1: In March, a 19-year-old died when he jumped off a Holiday Inn balcony in a hallucinogenic state, an accident the Denver coroner linked to marijuana intoxication. He had eaten one pot cookie, purchased at a legal pot shop, that contained six times the recommended serving of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis. Denver’s Children’s Hospital says it is seeing more emergency room visits—eight all of last year, nine as of May this year—by children who accidentally ate marijuana.
Problem 2: TinctureBelle Marijuanka, LLC, a Colorado-based marijuana edible manufacturer, decided that labeling look-alike, marijuana-infused chocolate bars with names like Hasheath (instead of Heath) and Ganja Joy (instead of Almond Joy) was a good marketing ploy. A lawsuit filed by Hershey last month in the U.S. District Court in Denver called it something else: trademark infringement, and a safety risk to children.
Problem 3: The unknown. Empirical studies are still years away from telling us whether there will be a significant increase in use by children, more psychological problems among adults, or other negative social consequences. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper signed two bills in May requiring the regulatory department to create standards for edible packaging, labeling, and dosage, but more legislation is likely.
A Hickenlooper-commissioned task force on marijuana submitted a comprehensive report on legalization to the legislature last year, but in an industry with so many moving parts—buyers, sellers, regulators, tourists, activists on both sides—it is hard to peer into the future.
“People will continue to disagree about whether it should be legal or not, but the question now is how legal it should be,” says Sam Kamin, a University of Denver law professor and task force member who rattles off a list of issues involving public consumption, advertising, pot bars and lounges, and the refusal of most banks to work with the marijuana industry.
He says Colorado is under the microscope as it brings an entire underground industry into ordinary commerce, and notes that Colorado marijuana leaking outside the state into other states that don’t want it could create a “flashpoint” with the federal government.
Pastors are also thinking about marijuana. For years Christians had a simple reply to the question of marijuana: It’s illegal, so you shouldn’t do it. But with legalization comes a harder conversation about how Christians should respond. Matt Patrick, once a pot smoker and seller, now pastors a young evangelical church plant in downtown Boulder, a nature-loving, hippy holdout in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains that is home to the University of Colorado. Patrick’s church office sits on Pearl Street, a pedestrian mall with stores selling outdoor gear and marijuana paraphernalia. Eighteen recreational and medicinal pot shops now serve Boulder’s 100,000 residents.
In the middle of Colorado’s marijuana mecca, Patrick has a clear stance on pot use for Christians: no recreational use, and only medicinal use in limited circumstances. Patrick’s personal experience with the drug gives him conviction: “I have seen the negative effects of it all. I was somebody who smoked pot every day and I know that it’s addictive. I have a special disdain for it. But it is also very tempting.” He says the enemy whispers lies about the time when it was fun, twisting memories to say some times were great.
Patrick thinks pot has that effect on people: They start feeling they cannot relax, have fun, or sleep without it. He says getting off pot was the hardest thing he has ever done, and sees the risks as physical but also spiritual: Pot does not encourage thoughtful, intentional living, and is not something that will “help conform you more into the image of Christ.” He says people use pot for the high, and that makes it unlike sober consumption of a single beer or glass of wine. The legal market means the marijuana sold today is stronger and more potent than ever before.
Patrick recalls numerous conversations with other Colorado pastors: “People tend to freak out. Don’t freak out. There is a certain wisdom to a calm approach, applying people’s reason instead of arming up and going to fight.” He has done a lot of research on scientific studies about marijuana and its short- and long-term effects. When asked if it is harder to stand against pot when the government now says it is legal, he quickly responds, “Porn is legal. Since when is that our measuring stick? … We should be different.”