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Pot brownies could lose some punch under proposed California rules

The ubiquitous billboards and product labels for Korova Edibles, an Oakland marijuana confections manufacturer, feature a three-eyed cow and a mooing boast: “Unrivaled potency.”

Korova’s “20 dose” medical cannabis Black Bar chocolates are supercharged with 1,000 milligrams of THC, marijuana’s psychoactive ingredient, and the company’s new THC Blondie – a treat “packed with caramel chunks” and “covered in crushed pretzels” – has 10 50-milligram doses with a total punch of 500 milligrams.

Now state Department of Public Health potency limit recommendations for medical marijuana edibles threaten to upset Korova’s marketing strategy and could force the company to dramatically cut THC levels in its chocolates, cookies, brownies and pot-infused popcorn sold through more than 750 marijuana dispensaries and delivery services in California.

Under proposed guidelines, released last week, state officials recommended a limit of 100 milligrams per marijuana edible or package, with marked pieces – or doses – of 10 milligrams or less. While Korova could be the most notable company affected, the rules could force scores of cannabis manufacturers to change product lines and remove high-octane marijuana foods from the legal sales market for consumers.

California, the first state to legalize medical marijuana use in 1996, never has had potency standards for either pot strains or marijuana edibles. The proposed limits are an outgrowth of broad industry regulatory guidelines signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in late 2015.

The regulations, to be discussed in public hearings in June in Santa Rosa and San Diego, wouldn’t impose any standards for home-baked marijuana edibles but are widely seen as potential guidelines for future recreational marijuana products expected to be on the market by 2018. The rules also would require packaging that doesn’t appeal to children and would prohibit marijuana from being infused into alcohol, nicotine or caffeine products.

The Department of Heath released the recommendations as part of a 117-page document proposing standards for cannabis manufacturers in California. In advocating for potency limits for marijuana edibles, the department declared that it was concerned about people ingesting – often unintentionally – far higher concentrations of THC than they can tolerate.

“The actual and potential toxicity of unintentional ingestion of high levels of cannabis containing products demonstrates the need to set THC limits in order to protect public health and safety,” the department said.

While cannabis advocates long have asserted that marijuana cannot cause a fatal overdose, health officials in other states have taken note of evidence of spikes in emergency room visits for children consuming pot treats and anecdotal reports of people of varied ages hallucinating or suffering panic attacks from consuming larger marijuana edible portions than they thought they could handle.

But Joe Gerlach, the CEO of Korova Edibles, said he fears that state regulators aren’t considering that many medical marijuana users – such as those with cancer, intractable pain or intestinal disorders such as Crohn’s disease – have developed a very high tolerance for THC and require potent edibles.

Gerlach, who said he will lobby for a higher potency limit for medical marijuana food than products available to recreational users, argues that pot is safer alternative for many people than prescription opioid drugs that are blamed for a surge in heroin use and prescription and nonprescription overdose deaths.

“I think our main goal is to find something that is a compromise to definitely keep public safety in mind but also to keep the patients in mind,” Gerlach said. “Nobody has ever died of cannabis. And you don’t want people running off and getting opiates. Why are we restricting this when it is one of the safest alternatives?”

Gerlach also said that many people buy his more potent products because they are cost-effective when rationed over many days or weeks. “Their price point per THC (content) is the lowest on the market,” he said.

Among other legal marijuana states, Colorado and Washington have limited edibles to 100 milligrams of THC, with individual servings labeled at 10 milligrams or less. No state having passed product restrictions allows items totaling more than 100 milligrams. Oregon set a standard of 50 milligrams for edibles sold to recreational users, with labeled servings or pieces of 5 milligrams, but with no portion limit for medical use.

Sandy Moriarty of Grass Valley, author of “Aunt Sandy’s Medical Marijuana Cookbook,” figures she soon will be using a smaller portion of marijuana-infused “cannabutter” in her Aunt Sandy’s Lemon Bar, a 500-milligram shortbread cookie and lemon custard treat sold at dispensaries.

“That’s the beautiful thing when you use the butter,” said Moriarty, who said she could refashion the bars to a 100-milligram limit. “You can always cut it with (non-infused) creamy butter, and then you can control the dose that way.”

Kristi Knoblich, co-founder of Kiva Confections, an Oakland manufacturer of popular cannabis candies, said the proposed state regulations also reflect where the cannabis edibles market is moving. She said demand is increasing among adults wanting lower-intensity relaxation from marijuana.

Kiva Confections, whose most potent offering is a 180-milligram chocolate bar with four 45-milligram pieces, recently began marketing chocolate blueberries and coffee beans totaling 5 milligrams and a line of 2.5-milligram mints. The proposed state limits would restrict their small-dose items to 20 per package for the blueberries and coffee beans and 40 for the mints.

“We’ve been able to focus our products on micro-dosing,” Knoblich said.

But Knoblich said the proposed standards could pose a different kind of challenge for medical marijuana users needing higher levels of THC in edibles: That may mean consuming more sweet, buttery treats.

“Unfortunately, edibles have calories and sugar, and that’s not necessarily patient-friendly,” she said.

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