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Marijuana-Laced Treats Leave Colorado Jonesing For Food-Safety Rules

Where there's pot, there's pot brownies. But how do you make sure those high-inducing sweets are safe to eat?

Colorado regulators are wrestling with that question now that the state has legalized recreational marijuana. From sodas and truffles to granola bars and butter, food products infused with THC – the chemical in marijuana that gives you a high — are already for sale.

The problem? Marijuana is still illegal under federal law. And that means the existing food safety system, which relies heavily on support from federal agencies, can't ensure that marijuana-infused foods are safe.

Purveyors of pot-laced foods say they want the regulation.

"We are under a microscope," says Christie Lunsford, marketing and education director for Dixie Elixirs, a manufacturer of foods infused with THC. "Even my competitors, who are food novices, they really care about providing for the consumer and making sure they're safe."

That's created new demand for businesses like CannLabs, a facility where chemists pick apart marijuana products to find out if they're safe to smoke or eat. Owner Genifer Murray is preparing for a boom in business.

"CannLabs started in a space of about 150 square feet," she notes during a tour of the company's offices. "This is about 500 and we're moving to 2,000."

New state rules go into effect this year that require businesses to test their marijuana products in labs like Murray's. Until this point, tests for mold, foodborne pathogens and potency were voluntary, meaning few companies actually did them. Murray says new potency standards could help prevent marijuana novices from, say, eating too many prepackaged special brownies in one sitting.

"You can feel like you're dying," she says, describing what it feels like when you take in too much THC. "Your heart rate speeds up, you sweat, you can throw up. I mean, it's awful. So with edibles, it is very important that they get tested and that you know your dose."

The enforcement and creation of the industry's rules is the responsibility of the small Marijuana Enforcement Division. It was created to watch over the medical marijuana industry, but Colorado's experiment in recreational use has expanded the division into areas it never would have been before, like food safety and lab certification.

"To a large extent, we're learning a lot as we go along," says Lewis Koski, the division's chief. "The right thing to do, from a regulatory standpoint, is to make sure we can comprehensively regulate all these businesses and ensure the health and welfare of the citizens of Colorado."

Because Colorado is one of the first states to draft rules for recreational marijuana, all eyes are on Koski.

"It's a new agency. If you're just going to start up a new agency – [even] in a public policy arena that wasn't this divisive — it'd be pretty challenging," he says.

Colorado has already taken some innovative steps in ensuring public safety. For example, state regulators have rolled out a system that tracks all marijuana plants from seed to sale, meaning if a pot cookie caused a salmonella outbreak, you could track it all the way back to the source.

That tracking system is just one piece of a much larger set of rules used to keep the recreational marijuana industry in check.

And with more states legalizing marijuana, both recreational and medicinal, you can guarantee they'll be watching to see if this regulatory scheme built from scratch actually works.

This story comes to us via Harvest Public Media, a public radio reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and food production.

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As KUNC’s reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.