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Potent snacks: How big is Colorado’s marijuana edibles overdose problem?

In Colorado some adults and kids end up hospitalized after eating a strong dose of marijuana in THC-laced treats

DENVER – When Jordan Coombs decided to visit last year's Denver County Fair with his two little boys, his wife and his father, he never predicted his afternoon would end with a trip to the hospital and thoughts of his own death whizzing through his brain.

“I said it probably 20 times in the car,” Coombs remembered. “I’m going to die. I’m going to have a heart attack right now. I was thinking about jumping out of the car."

Unknowingly, Coombs, 34, had consumed an excess of marijuana-laced chocolates, and the end result, he claimed, was a THC overdose that caused him to projectile vomit and "freak out."

“I felt your typical effects of paranoia and things like that,” he said. “Anxiety, but to the nth degree … and I started to convulse and stuff like that.”

Even before recreational marijuana went on sale here on New Year's Day 2014, Colorado businesses sold marijuana-laced edibles for medical use. But some packages resemble other tasty sweets and have caught some adults off guard with their potency. In some cases, they've also fallen into the hands of children.

One of the problems is that they come in essentially like a Tootsie Roll or one piece of chocolate, and that implies, 'OK, I can just eat this and I'll probably be alright. It’s like, 'No, you need to eat an eighth of that and you’ll probably really feel it.'

Jordan Coombs on marijuana edibles' potency

Coombs, a video game designer, was not a regular pot consumer (he admitted smoking a little in college), but he was intrigued by Colorado's new retail marijuana laws and said he supported the industry wholeheartedly. Coombs said he event wanted to try a pot edible at some point.

Jordan Coombs, seen at left when he was hospitalized for a THC overdose, said the marijuana edibles he accidentally consumed made him believe that he was having a heart attack and that he was going to die.

“It wasn’t on my list of things to do, but in the right circumstance … I might have tried something,” he said.

When he learned the fair had a Pot Pavilion, an exhibition for vendors selling marijuana paraphernalia and advertising new businesses, he asked his father to watch the kids while he and his wife visited the 21-and-up display. There were several signs posted around the pavilion indicating that no actual marijuana was on the fairgrounds, according to Coombs, since state law dictates that it has to be sold at a licensed dispensary.

“There was a lot of pipes and bongs and things like that, and a lot of Bob Marley posters and such,” he recalled. “It was kind of underwhelming.”

But a display of chocolates caught his eye.

“They had all the chocolates … like strawberry and mint-flavored ones, and so they had those ingredients all out and none of it was wrapped up, so it kind of looked like a Willy Wonka thing,” Coombs said. "There was just chocolate everywhere."

He said he took a few samples after being reassured they didn't contain any THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

“I probably ate like four or five of the bars,” he said, noting that these weren't full-sized candy bars, but closer to fun-size candy handed out at Halloween. (On a related note, there were no reported cases of Colorado trick-or-treaters receiving infused candy as some had feared.)

Within about 20 minutes, Coombs felt high and told his wife as much. Then, he said, he progressively lost touch with reality and convinced his family to take him to the hospital.

His wife wasn't sure where the closest hospital was. Paranoid, Coombs accused her of trying to help kill him.

Once they got to a hospital, Coombs was given an IV and a test for THC that he said came back positive. Now, he's one of seven people in a class-action lawsuit against the company that makes the chocolates and he pledges to never again try an edible. The company Beyond Broadway LLC, which does business as Full Melt Chocolate and LivWell, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

“One of the problems is that they come in essentially like a Tootsie Roll or one piece of chocolate, and that implies, ‘OK, I can just eat this and I’ll probably be alright,’” Coombs said. “It’s like, ‘No, you need to eat an eighth of that and you’ll probably really feel it.’ That’s not a good way to approach things, I suppose.”

Emergency rules enacted

Colorado's Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center reported at least 56 marijuana-related calls from adults 19 and older between January 2014 and the beginning of December. And while there's no unified collection of data to show how many individuals in Colorado overdosed on marijuana edibles, some hospitals started collecting data on patients they treated.

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According Children’s Hospital Colorado, 14 children younger than 10 were admitted for ingesting marijuana edibles in the first 11 months of 2014. Of those, seven were in critical condition and required ICU treatment. In 2013, before recreational pot was legalized in the state, eight kids were admitted to hospital for ingestion.

But that's a big jump from zero in 2008. While medical marijuana has been legal in Colorado since 2000, storefront dispensaries didn't take off until 2007, when a judge lifted the limit on the number of patients marijuana caregivers could serve.

But in the months that followed legalized recreational sales, two edible-related deaths grabbed headlines. Congolese exchange student Levy Pongi, 19, consumed a marijuana cookie that contained more than six servings of THC during a March spring break trip to Colorado. He then jumped to his death from his hotel's fourth floor.

The Office of the Medical Examiner reported:

According to his friends, the decedent consumed marijuana cookies and soon thereafter exhibited hostile behavior (pulling items off the walls) and spoke erratically. The decedent’s friends attempted to calm him down and were temporarily successful. However, the decedent eventually reportedly jumped out of bed, went outside the hotel room, and jumped over the balcony railing resulting in him landing on the interior atrium floor. The decedent was pronounced at the scene.

In April, Kristine Kirk called 911, pleading for help, after her husband consumed marijuana-infused candy. She told operators he was hallucinating and holding a gun. She was shot and killed before help could arrive.

In the wake of those cases, Barbara Brohl, executive director of the Colorado Department of Revenue State Licensing Authority, signed a series of emergency rules in July affecting retail edible marijuana products' sales, labeling and packaging to “help ensure the public is adequately protected when they purchase retail marijuana products.”

The new rules, some of which go into effect this year, declare that 10 milligrams of THC is a serving size and require products to be easily divided into obvious servings. And when the Colorado Legislature reconvenes this week, regulation of edibles is expected to be on the agenda.

Ron Kammerzell, who was one of the people charged with implementing legalized marijuana retail sales in Colorado, acknowledged to America Tonight that he didn't anticipate the issue of overconsumption of edibles when it came to recreational consumers. 

"The average consumer for medical marijuana is extremely knowledgeable about the effects of THC, the effects of how edible products interact with their bodies," said Kammerzell, the senior director of enforcement at Colorado Department of Revenue.

"Some of the edibles that are produced are a cookie," he continued. "Well, the cookie might have 60 to 100 milligrams of THC in it. For a retail user who doesn't know about the effects of THC ingestion, he views that cookie as if anyone would a cookie: as a single serving." 

For Tripp Keber, the head of Dixie Elixirs & Edibles, one of Colorado's largest edibles manufacturers, the new rules required expensive changes on his production line.

“We lost about 30 percent of our product line to this new set of emergency rules,” said Keber, whose company was not the one named in Coombs' lawsuit. 

Dixie Elixirs & Edibles employees in Colorado create marijuana-infused White Chocolate Peppermint Bars in single-dose servings.
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The Colorado Bar, one of Keber's best-selling products, was available in 100 milligram recreational doses and 300 milligrams for medicinal patients. It couldn't be easily divided into 10 milligram recreational doses, so it will be retired in February and replaced with the 10 milligram White Chocolate Peppermint Bar.

“It cost the company between $310,000 and maybe $350,000. We’re still tallying up, so an incredibly expensive move,” he said, adding that edibles make up about half of Colorado's marijuana industry.

“Of course, there’s a knee-jerk reaction, which is just, ‘Rats!’ But the fact of the matter is that, like most people in this industry, we want to do better. And so that $350,000 – if we can save one or 100 lives, obviously there’s a [return on investment] there.”

To minimize the risk of kids eating marijuana edibles, some wonder whether they could look like something other than candy and cookies. Keber said his team is focused on developing innovative deliverance systems that will allow adult consumers to "embrace cannabis in any form he or she wants," while continuing to "work hand-in-hand with the state however to ensure that that's done responsibly."

Keber said demand for his products is enormous. And when Colorado health officals raised the idea of banning edibles in October, it was quickly skewered by industry advocates and others as bad policy and unconstitutional. When the Colorado Legislature reconvenes this week, regulation of edibles is expected to be on the agenda.

But Keber also said it was tragic that people had been sickened by overconsuming edibles.

“Really, what it represents is the immense need for additional consumer education. That means [for the] first-time user of [a] cannabis-infused edible – no more than 5 milligrams," he said, echoing a piece of advice from his company's website: "Go low. Go slow.”

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