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Leprechauns, the Easter Bunny and the Spectrum of Issues Surrounding Marijuana Regulation

The state agency charged with policing marijuana asked legislators for help Tuesday. The question at hand is how far legislators are willing to go to clearly identify food and drink containing marijuana.

Last year, the legislature set up a task force to find a way to make edible marijuana products easily identifiable once removed from their packaging. 

But Barbara Brohl, executive director of the Colorado Department of Revenue, told the House Health, Insurance and Environment Committee Tuesday that the task force has been unable to arrive at a single, clear recommendation. Group members included law enforcement, state marijuana regulators, local government officials and the owners of marijuana businesses.

It’s a complicated problem, Brohl said, because not every product lends itself to being stamped or shaped to identify it as marijuana. For example, it’s not possible to stamp granola, baking mixes, oils or liquids. 

And coloring marijuana products brings up its own problems."If you pick green, then on St. Patrick's Day, it’s going to be a really big deal. If you pick pink, will that be a big deal around Easter?" Brohl said. “There isn’t one color that you can’t find in some food product already.”

So Brohl found herself in the unusual position of coming back to the legislature and asking for help in completing work that legislators had delegated to a task force. “We’re in this together, and we need to understand what direction and what intent you all have as a legislative body." 

Rep. Lois Landgraf (R) said House Bill 14-1366, which set up the task force, was clear enough.   

"Frankly, I'm amazed at this report. I wonder if you talked to anyone who actually voted for or sponsored the bill," Landgraf said. "I'm just shocked, because there was absolutely no question in my mind that this bill that passed directed you to come up with products that are in some way easily identifiable outside the package."

Brohl said the bill contains two crucial words – “when practicable” – that led to the stalemate on the task force. She asked the legislature to further define those two words and to decide what should be done when it is not “practicable” to identify a product. Options include banning marijuana products like granola and liquids, although that could run afoul of the Colorado constitution’s amendments that legalized marijuana.Legislators took no action Tuesday on the request, and no bill has been introduced on edible marijuana in the 2015 session.

Also Tuesday, Dr. Larry Wolk, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), gave an overview of his agency’s latest work on marijuana.

The legislature in 2014 funded scientific research into the effects of medical marijuana. Wolk said there is already fairly well documented evidence on the potential benefits of marijuana for people with chronic neuropathic pain, multiple sclerosis, chemotherapy-induced nausea, and wasting syndrome associated with AIDS. More research is needed on marijuana’s benefits for treating post-traumatic stress disorder, epilepsy, inflammatory bowel disease, cancer, opiate withdrawal and other psychiatric conditions, he said. The CDPHE is planning to fund at least eight medical studies into marijuana’s effects on pediatric epilepsy, chronic spine pain and other conditions.

The legislature in 2013 asked the CDPHE for a report on the public health effects of legalizing marijuana. Wolk delivered that report Tuesday.

The big question – Does legalized marijuana lead to higher use? – was not answered, because federal data for 2014 will not be available until later this year.

But the report did make several findings:

• The risk of a car crash doubles when drivers have recently used marijuana. 

• Marijuana use among teenagers is associated with future use of alcohol and harder drugs. It’s also associated with impaired learning and memory, even 28 days after the last use.

• Maternal use of marijuana during pregnancy can harm a child’s ability to learn and function cognitively.

In related news, Rep. Jack Tate (R) gave up on his bill (House Bill 1036) to require marijuana stores to post warnings targeted at pregnant women. The House Public Health Care & Human Services Committee voted 12-0 on Tuesday to kill the bill after Tate said he would retract this version and try again.