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Among the more meaningful cliches regarding group dynamics and public policy is “a few bad apples,” with the connotation that a small number of dissenters from any group can tarnish or even ruin things for everyone.

In this case, that group is legitimate and legal cultivators, processors, dispensaries, and retail stores that play some role in the production and sale of safe, laboratory-tested edibles and cannabis-infused foods. Such marijuana-enhanced munchables include baked goods, energy drinks, hemp smoothies, chocolate, candy, and even flavored milk (a modern day twist on classic Indian bhang).

Also known as “medibles” when sold through medical dispensaries, canna-food has been all the rage in Colorado, and other legal states, for several years. The end of recreational cannabis prohibition in the state, which began in 2014, has propelled some Denver-based edibles companies to national brands and increased demand for edibles by a significant margin.

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According to the state of Colorado, a single serving of THC in an edible is 10 mg. Those wishing to consume greater quantities for recreational or medicinal purposes obviously can eat multiple servings, often available in a single protein bar, cookie, or brownie. Popular options available in many dispensaries and retail stores in Colorado offer indica, sativa, and hybrid THC varieties of chocolate bars and other edibles, typically ranging from 50 to 100 mg per package, but sometimes reaching as high as 300 mg or more.

Edibles Underground Emerges

Amid Colorado’s nation-leading culture of recreational and medical legalization has emerged its own underground for edibles. Riding on the wave of demand for cannabis foods that has been generated by licensed, regulated, tax-paying manufacturers and retail outlets, a black market has appeared to compete with legitimate players (most of whom have paid significant licensing or permit fees).

Underground bakers and dealers are pushing unregulated — and sometimes unsafe — edibles onto the market. With no laboratory testing, no labeling, no guarantee, and certainly no certainty, both local consumers and tourists are risking their health and enjoyment when they purchase cannabis products from such disreputable sources on the black market, many of which could result in an unpleasant experience (a particular bummer if one is vacationing in the Centennial State).

Although an individual edible may contain hundreds of even thousands of milligrams (mg) of THC, the psychoactive cannabinoid in cannabis that is responsible for its euphoria and significant medical efficacy, the suggested dosage is 10 mg. While some seasoned recreational consumers and patients might prefer and be able to tolerate a much larger dose, it’s an unwise move on the part of those who are new to edibles and possibly cannabis products overall.

It has been estimated by some dispensary and retail store owners, especially those operating in ski destinations, that up to 70, and sometimes even 80 percent of their business is derived from tourism. Due to the fact that the majority of these tourists originate from prohibitionist states where edibles are typically difficult to find and often relatively weak with respect to potency, the 10 mg limit is a safe approach for those new to the game. As the intelligent cannabis edibles meme goes, “start low, go slow.”

Nancy Whiteman, co-owner of a licensed Boulder-based cannabis edibles manufacturer, is concerned about black market edibles for reasons that go beyond dealing with more competition. Said Whiteman:

“There is no way really to know what the potency is of those products or how carefully they’ve been made.”

Sick Patients and Potency

Unfortunately, sometimes very sick patients, especially those suffering severe pain and nausea (often from chemotherapy for cancer or HIV/AIDS drugs), require especially strong edibles or concentrates to adequately deal with their symptoms or the side effects of the drugs they must take to stay alive. The problem, in most cases, is when medical-grade mega-doses come into the hands of casual recreational cannabis consumers, particularly newbies.

Another problem is tolerance building in very sick patients who use potent edibles to counteract pain on a daily basis. Such patients can require a dose that is several times more potent than what would be appropriate for a recreational consumer, even one with years of experience.

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Jessica LeRoux, owner and operator of Twirling Hippy Confections, one of the oldest edibles companies in Colorado, defended those who consume hyper-potent edibles to deal with pain and nausea.

Said LeRoux:

“They’re not eating these for the euphoric effect. They’re intended to get you through the day when you’re dealing with pain.”

She said her company has created edibles for patients with severe pain that have been as potent as 150 times the serving size suggested by the state. “We’ve been making customized cakes that can go anywhere from 500 to 1,500 milligrams [of THC],” said LeRoux.

Some patient advocates support black market edibles, despite the lack of laboratory testing and accurate labeling with information like strain name or THC content. Teri Robnett, founder of the Cannabis Patients Alliance, a reputable patient advocacy and educational group from Denver, said:

“The black market often produces higher quality than the regulated market. The potency levels are not restricted, as they are in [legal] recreational. Pricing is often much more affordable.”

Weigh Your Values

Patients and recreational consumers who value their safety and desire predictable, accurately tested, and labeled products — like they have become accustomed to purchasing at the local supermarket or convenience store — will naturally gravitate toward legitimate dispensaries and retail stores selling either their own in-house creations or those of major, emerging third-party brands. Such customers often value the fact they they are receiving not only a quality product with few unknowns, but also that their tax dollars are going to rebuild schools, pave roads, and pay for local fire departments.

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Any time a popular cannabis-related product category arises, be it concentrates like shatter or live resin or edibles like chocolate bars, cookies, and hard candy, the chemistry lab and culinary renegades willing to operate on the black market will swoop in to offer questionable products with the allure of street prices that are often lower than those of the many reputable dispensaries.

It should be noted that it is legal in Colorado for citizens to make their own edibles and share with others. If no sales occur, possessing or consuming a homebrew pot brownie or other confection is fully legal and rarely frowned upon. In fact, it is part of what makes Denver what it is.

As a cannabis consumer, one must ask oneself if they are willing to break the law, risk their health and enjoyment, and deprive local schools of tax revenue simply to save some money on a THC-infused food product from a stranger that may be too weak, too strong, or made with dangerous pesticides or other contaminants.

For those who enjoy the benefits of safe access provided by a regulated and legal open market for cannabis products in states like Colorado — and who drive on roads maintained by tax dollars or have children in public school — it may be time to put their money where their mouth is.

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