More Questions Than Answers Surrounding Marijuana And Health

Aug 27, 2014

On Tuesday, the Pitkin County Commissioners heard concerns from staff about recreational marijuana and health. Retail pot shops started selling weed nearly nine months ago in Colorado.
On Tuesday, the Pitkin County Commissioners heard concerns from staff about recreational marijuana and health. Retail pot shops started selling weed nearly nine months ago in Colorado.
Credit Marci Krivonen

When it comes to how to regulate recreational marijuana, there are more questions than answers. That was the conclusion at a Pitkin County Commissioner’s meeting Tuesday, where officials discussed public safety and environmental health surrounding pot. Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen reports.

It’s been nearly nine months since recreational marijuana shops in Colorado started selling pot to adults 21 and older. Now, Pitkin County is examining problems and concerns that have cropped up.

Two licensed retail shops operate in Aspen. Another one is in Pitkin County. In addition, one manufacturing facility is licensed in the city, but it’s not yet operating.

As for public health, local medical providers are concerned about overdoses of edibles, drugged driving, increased use by youth and product labeling. Doctor Kimberly Levin is Pitkin County’s Medical Officer.

"In the emergency department we’ve been seeing these overdoses and it’s very scary for people and a lot of times they’re accidental. There are these cookies that have like 150 milligrams of cannabis in them. A kid will eat them because they look delicious and they’re not well-labeled, or an adult will eat them not realizing there’s cannabis in them," she says.

Another problem, she says, is the effect of long-term use on adults who started using marijuana young. She cites a recent study.

"And, it looked at their IQ’s and it definitely showed a decrease in their IQ’s for teens that started early. So, there’s long-term cognitive effects. These studies are just starting to come out, so there’s not a ton of research around them."

And, that’s part of the problem - not a lot is known. A controversial statewide education effort drills that point home. The “Don’t Be A Lab Rat” campaign uses human-sized cages to show pot’s potential harm to the developing brain.

There are still more questions about pot and environmental health, like ensuring retail shops and manufacturing facilities are safe. The City of Aspen and Pitkin County inspect retail food facilities like restaurants but not pot shops. By contrast, Denver is inspecting facilities and running into unique problems. Pitkin County Environmental Health Manager Kurt Dahl says one issue is odor.

"Just like our departments inspect schools and other facilities, so does the City of Denver. So, you have problems where you have someone go inspect a marijuana facility and then they can’t readily go and inspect a school smelling like marijuana. So, the odor’s been a significant problem and the City’s been using the Febreze product to address those issues," he says.

Even though they’re not inspected, marijuana businesses must follow a set of vague rules like “food shall be kept at temperatures that inhibit bacterial growth” and “facilities should be kept in sanitary condition.” Aspen’s Environmental Health Director CJ Oliver says the rules are too loose.

"We felt in using that very general guideline set of regulations didn’t provide any context for operators to really know whether or not they were sticking to safe practices, or what sorts of things they should be looking for."

He’s awaiting more rules from the state and if they don’t come, the city and county might write their own.

Pitkin County Sheriff Joe Disalvo created the Valley Marijuana Council to address many of these problems. He argues the community is ahead of the curve when it comes to education and regulation.

"We’ve been at this for 10 months. I wanted to get out in front of this before it even hit our community, and we were lucky. We were at it for six months before the first retail sale."

Because of his group, he says marijuana shops aren’t selling “look-a-like” packaging like a marijuana-infused bar that looks like a Snicker’s. Pot shops are also working on finding alternatives to marijuana candies. He’s distributing educational pamphlets to hotels about how to use and store pot and he’d like to take the same efforts to Downvalley communities. He says the Valley Marijuana Council has already addressed the majority of the County’s concerns.