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Colorado creates food safety system to regulate marijuana industry

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A marijuana plant glows purple under grow lights at 3D Cannabis Center in Denver, Colo. (Luke Runyon/Harvest Public Media)
A marijuana plant glows purple under grow lights at 3D Cannabis Center in Denver, Colo. (Luke Runyon/Harvest Public Media)
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Luke Runyon is Harvest Public Media’s reporter based at KUNC in northern Colorado.

Colorado made history when it opened up licensed marijuana retail shops this year. Aside from just legalizing the purchase of smoke-able marijuana, it also means pot brownies have the potential to be big business. Food products infused with marijuana’s psychoactive ingredient, THC, are available in stores across the state.

Marijuana, though, is still considered illegal by the federal government. The existing food safety system, which relies heavily on support from federal agencies, can’t ensure that marijuana-infused foods are safe.

Colorado’s marijuana regulators, located within the Department of Revenue, continue to roll out new standards for the recreational marijuana industry. The most recent batch focuses attention on food safety, minimum sanitary standards, labeling guidelines and laboratory testing requirements. Essentially, the state is building an entire regulatory structure from scratch. And other states considering legalizing marijuana sales are taking notice.

But just as important, owners of marijuana-related businesses say, is for this burgeoning industry to learn how to regulate itself.

“We’re a new industry,” said Christie Lunsford, marketing and education director for Dixie Elixirs, a manufacturer of foods infused with THC. “We are under a microscope. Even my competitors, who are food novices -- they really care about providing for the consumer and making sure they’re safe.”

The market for edible marijuana products is only expected to grow with the drug’s new legal recreational status in Colorado. Dixie Elixirs offers THC-infused sodas, chocolates, truffles, chews, mints and tinctures. Other companies churn out baked goods, granola bars and butter. At one point there was THC-infused beef jerky on the market.

“So it really is a companion plant, whether it’s used medicinally or for it’s lovely intoxicating features,” Lunsford said.

Dixie’s main production facility can barely keep up with orders, Lunsford said. Because marijuana is now open to the general public, instead of off-limits to anyone without a state-sanctioned medical marijuana card, state officials decided the rules and regulations needed to tighten. The standard labels of “consume at your own risk,” and “buyer beware,” fell short.

Like any food company, Dixie Elixirs is worried about getting people sick. But unlike other companies, the FDA so far wants nothing to do with foods that include marijuana. That could change eventually, as Food Safety News has reported, but for now the drug, and the foods that contain it, remains in a tricky legal limbo.

Colorado’s marijuana regulators, essentially, have to create a new state-run food safety system to ensure that the now-legal THC-infused foods are safe.

To craft the new rules, Colorado’s Marijuana Enforcement Division convened a series of meetings last fall meant to bring together experts in food safety and regulation. Edible products manufacturers, public health officials, state regulators and laboratory owners came together to find common ground on the new rules. Regulators have started to implement some of the rules born from those meetings and plan to phase in other rules throughout the year.

The state Department of Public Health and Environment has been reluctant to take any kind of regulatory role with marijuana. A portion of the Department’s budget comes from the federal government. That means the lion’s share of the enforcement and creation of the industry’s rules comes from the small Marijuana Enforcement Division, within the state’s Department of Revenue.

“To a large extent we’re learning a lot as we go along. 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 the state of Colorado,” said Lewis Koski, the Division of Marijuana Enforcement’s director. He took the job a little more than a week after the first retail marijuana shops opened their doors Jan. 1.

Colorado’s marijuana experiment has pushed the Department of Revenue into areas it never would have been in before, like food safety and lab certification. Because Colorado is one of the first states to regulate recreational marijuana all eyes are on Koski to see if the regulation actually works.

“It’s a new agency. If you’re just going to start up a new agency in a public policy arena that wasn’t this divisive it’d be pretty challenging,” Koski said. “And then you insert some of the complexities that come along with varied ideas of how this should all be carried out and it certainly adds some more pressure to it.”

Colorado has taken innovative steps in ensuring public safety, and in terms of foodborne illness, eventually you might be safer buying an edible marijuana product than produce at the grocery store. They’ve rolled out a system, called MITS, which tracks all marijuana plants from seed to sale, meaning if a pot brownie caused a salmonella outbreak, you could track it all the way back to the source.

Thanks to the expansion of legalized marijuana, laboratories are well-positioned to see their own boom in business. Regulators will roll out new testing requirements for marijuana products this year. The eventual standard will be mandatory testing for all marijuana products, foods and raw plants alike.

CannLabs, a marijuana testing facility, is one of the few labs of its kind in Colorado. Owner Genifer Murray got into the game early and is now about to reap the benefits.

“CannLabs started in a space of about 150 square feet, this is about 500 and we’re moving to 2,000,” Murray said.

Until this point, tests for foodborne pathogens, dangerous chemicals like butane and the potency of THC were voluntary, meaning few companies actually did them. It’s important for consumers to know what they’re getting into when eating a THC-infused product, Murray says, or he or she may end up taking too much all at once.

“You can feel like you’re dying,” Murray said. “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.”

Murray’s lab isn’t yet certified by regulators. She can’t find any credible agency to do it. Lab certification requirements will be part of a yet to be adopted rule, state regulators say.

Just weeks into its new experiment, Colorado hasn’t yet plugged all the holes in the recreational marijuana industry’s new regulatory scheme. No doubt, other states will be curious to see how Colorado’s attempt at marijuana regulation works out, and if it truly is worth the effort.