The San Francisco Department of Public Health set some of America's first pot-brownie and -milkshake regulations in response to the growing sector of the medical cannabis industry. Edible baked goods, as well as ice cream, lollipops, chewing gum, and even olive oil tinged with THC has become a smash hit sector of California's dispensaries, owners say. But such edibles can also lead to frightening experiences and even emergency room visits when they are accidentally ingested or improperly prepared. Anecdotal stories and news headlines abound of grandmas, children, and pets accidentally eating unmarked THC edibles and experiencing cannabis' sometimes harrowing effects.
According to David Byrnes with California's Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development, the state does not track cannabis-specific emergency room visits, so there's no way to quantify a rise related to the now-$14 billion state industry.
“Marijuana is grouped with other psychodysleptics (hallucinogens), so it may be pot or something more potent. They are categorized as poisonings, ... the coding is just too vague,” Byrnes stated.
San Francisco's medical cannabis regulations call for labeling the amount of marijuana on each individually marked, opaquely wrapped cookie or rice krispie treat, and keeping pets and children out any kitchen where they're being made. No treats should resemble any type of candy. And no dispensary can make hot or cold-dependent foods like milkshakes or ice cream without a special permit from the Public Health Department, which has designed coursework and an exam for permitees.
San Francisco's Green Cross delivery dispensary operator Kevin Reed has implemented the guidelines and says they're necessary to prevent accidental exposure to the psychoactive herb.
"There are a million different advantages to edible products, but then you have people who turn around and put Snickers labels on it, and an average kid can't tell the different between a Snickers bar and a pot Snicker bars,” he said. “There's still this Wild West mentality.”
Reed's grandmother accidentally got into a plate of pot cookies at his house four years ago and demanded to see an emergency room doctor when the effects came on.
“The first one was good, so thirty to forty minutes she had another. She wasn't from here and didn't have any education. When I came in she said she ate these two cookies and said she was feeling kind of funny. Her blood pressure was up, her heart was pumping. She got paranoid and asked to be taken to the emergency room.
“I told her she could get in trouble for no reason if she went to the emergency room and she became even more paranoid. Eventually I had to hold her down. She accused me of, 'You just want to take my insurance money and my inheritance.' Stuff a crazy redneck mom from Alabama would say.
“I would definitely recommend that patients consider cookies just like their medication, like their Vicodin. It should all be locked up,” Reed continued. “If it's not labeled, you don't want to be that one explaining to Mom why her heart is beating that fast.”
David Goldman, a spokesperson for medical pot group Americans for Safe Access said the drug is rather harmless, but people should exercise some basic common sense.
"Most people after they come down from brownies, they feel fine, they're hungry and okay," he said. “I think the real onus is on parents and guardians of children to cook and keep edibles in a safe place. It's just common sense.”
Even experienced users need to pay attention to dosage, Goldman added, who also sits on San Francisco's Medical Cannabis Task Force.
“I once ate a cookie that had more THC in it that I would have liked, because I didn't know the dosage. I was able to understand that I'm fine, I'm buzzing a little bit but I'm fine. I went to bed and woke up the next day and I felt great.”
Some people aren't so lucky. Kinman Chan, a thirty-year-old San Francisco man claimed he was high on a double dose of medical pot cookies when he screamed, dropped his pants, and attacked crew members on a cross-country flight, forcing its diversion to Pittsburgh, Calif., the Associated Press reported in February.
“Crew members said Chan made odd gestures before he entered the plane's rear restroom shortly after takeoff and began to scream, according to the complaint.
Chan told the FBI that he "came back to reality" and exited the restroom, at which point the crew noticed his "pants were down, his shirt was untucked and all the compartments in the restroom were opened."
The charge of interfering with the duties of a flight attendant carries up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.”
Dr. Chris Johnson, DVM, and intern at San Francisco Veterinary Specialists says he comes from Oklahoma, where accidentally poisoning animals with pot is not really in issue. In San Francisco, however pot trumps other poisoning vectors like cats eating Tylenol, animals getting into blood pressure medication, insecticides and antifreeze:
“Of the top five sources of poisoning, I would have to say certainly marijuana is at the top. I would have to say chocolate is at the top but those two go hand in hand,” he said. “It's strictly anecdotal, I don't think any epidemiological studies have been done, but we've seen quite a bit of cases this past year. I've probably seen ten cases through my internship in the ER, and I worked it for four months.”
Johnson said animals (usually dogs) present symptoms of stress when they've been dosed, but like humans it's never killed anyone. Pot makes animals uncomfortable, and the course of treatment involves fluids and observation.
“Most of the time they're really jittery and they're kind of hyperactive. They're very sensitive to different stimuli like noise and light,” he said. “We may or may not give things like Valium to kind of help and just relax them.”
A San Francisco resident and edible cannabis consumer who wished to remain anonymous told Legalization Nation that he accidentally left out a plate of pot brownies overnight and awoke in the early morning to his beloved dog vomiting and staggering down the hallway. It was terrifying.
"We thought he was having a stroke," he said.
Rushed to a veterinary ER, the canine presented low blood pressure, high pulse, and acute lethargy, and was kept overnight, costing a couple hundred dollars.
"He ended up being fine, but it was spooky."
Here's a link to San Francisco's Department of Public Health regulations for making edible cannabis products, as well as their Training and Exam contact information.
Reed and Goldman recommend consumers:
- Only buy individually wrapped edibles with an expiration date and dosage from a licensed dispensary.
- Know your tolerance before ingesting cannabis, or only eat a small amount to determine effects.
- Keep edibles locked up at all times.