DENVER — A distressed-looking woman sits on a bed in a dark hotel room. A caption reads, “Don’t let a candy bar ruin your vacation.”
Prominently on display at a busy west Denver intersection, the billboard is a warning about the dangers of marijuana-infused edibles.
“With edibles, start low and go slow,” it reads.
It’s part of a public education campaign launched Wednesday by the marijuana advocacy group, Marijuana Policy Project, urging adults to consume pot responsibly in states where marijuana is legal.
The woman on the billboard, red-headed with her forehead in her palm, is an allusion to Maureen Dowd, a columnist for The New York Times who wrote in June that a “bite or two” of a chocolate-caramel candy bar left her “curled up in a hallucinatory state” for eight hours.
“The problem is that people have just never really been educated about the actual effects of marijuana and marijuana products. They’ve simply been told to never use it and they are stupid if they do. And that’s not a very useful education,” said Mason Tvert, spokesman the Marijuana Policy Project.
Serious concerns over marijuana edibles have surfaced since Colorado became the first state in the nation to legalize the sale of marijuana for recreational use. There have been at least two reported deaths following the consumption of marijuana-infused edibles.
A 19-year-old foreign exchange student fell from a balcony and died after consuming a cannabis cookie in March. About a month later, a man allegedly shot and killed his wife while reportedly high on pot and other drugs. The victim told a 911 operator moments before the shooting that her husband was scaring her and their children after eating some marijuana-laced candy.
Dowd described her own personal experience of eating too much of a marijuana-infused candy bar:
“I was thirsty but couldn’t move to get water. Or even turn off the lights. I was panting and paranoid, sure that when the room-service waiter knocked and I didn’t answer, he’d call the police and have me arrested for being unable to handle my candy.”
The column gained national exposure, not all of it positive as many pot advocates and late-night hosts mocked the columnist. Her experience was the inspiration behind the new “Consume Responsibly” billboard campaign, organizers say.
“Like most Americans, Ms. Dowd has probably seen countless silly anti-marijuana ads on TV, but she has never seen one that highlights the need to ‘start low and go slow’ when choosing to consume marijuana edibles,” Tvert said.
With edibles, it takes longer to feel the effects of THC, marijuana’s psychoactive ingredient, which can lead people to eat too much, then being hit hard by serious side effects that include delirium and psychosis.
“If you smoke (marijuana) it’s in your brain almost immediately. So, the effects start very rapidly. You can have an edible and not feel much right away. Up to an hour or two hours, three hours later you can start feeling the effects. It’s slower onset, and it lasts longer,” said Paula Riggs, director of the division of substance dependence at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.
Colorado state regulators are looking into stricter requirements for marijuana edible manufacturers that include better labeling and limiting each package to a single dose, about 10 milligrams of THC. Currently, marijuana dispensaries are selling recreational pot products that contain up to 100 milligrams of THC in a single candy bar.
Tvert said he hopes people see the billboard and take the time to really educate themselves about marijuana edibles. The billboard directs people to the campaign’s website, consumeresponsibly.org, which has information about marijuana laws, products and their effects, including negative effects like “increased heart rate and a sense of paranoia.”
Campaign organizers also plan to put out print and online ads, along with educational materials in marijuana dispensaries.