On a Monday in late April, the Colorado House of Representatives unanimously passed House Bill 1361, the Regulation of Marijuana Concentrates bill. If the Senate passes the bill — it will be heard Thursday by the Health and Human Services Committee — and the governor signs it, the state will establish an equivalence between an ounce of bud and concentrated marijuana products from keef to edibles, to take effect Jan. 1, 2016.
There's just one little thing: HB 1361 does not state what will be equivalent to an ounce of marijuana buds. But it appropriates $100,000 from the marijuana cash fund to finance a study on it.
"The idea ... is asking, 'What does an ounce really mean?'" Michael Elliott says. Elliott is the executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group, a lobbying and consumer advocacy outfit that has supported this bill since it was introduced.
For Elliott, there are at least two major justifications for the bill: consumer protection and containment. Elliott says he is concerned about naive users taking too much of a strong concentrate, whether in oil, hash or edibles. He's also concerned about keeping profits for marijuana-smugglers down.
"The worry," he says, "is that people are going to buy an ounce of some really highly concentrated oil and take it out of state."
From a purely mathematical standpoint, you'd think you could measure the THC concentration in an ounce of bud, and say that same amount of THC should be the legal limit. But it's not that simple.
For one thing, marijuana strains vary in potency. An ounce of one strain could have far more THC, the psychoactive compound in the plant, than an ounce of another.
And it doesn't stop there.
"Typically you get 10 to maybe 15 percent [of the THC when you smoke marijuana]," explains Dr. Bob Melamede, a biology professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and cannabis scientist.
According to Melamede, there are around 80 different cannabinoids — the main class of active chemicals in marijuana — including THC and cannabidiol (CBD). There are also hundreds of other medically useful compounds. Myrcene, for instance, is a painkiller and sedative. Other compounds shrink certain tumors. Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, who first isolated THC, described cannabis as "a treasure trove of pharmacologically active compounds."
So, the how of the bill is the $100,000 question. Elliott admits that's "difficult, if not impossible, to answer right now."
Still, Elliott says he has not heard strong opposition to the bill during its legislative hearings, save for some who wish the standard would apply sooner than 2016.
Elliott hasn't heard from Don McKay. The owner of Southern Colorado Medical Marijuana supports efforts to keep marijuana in-state, but doesn't see any reason why an ounce of concentrate should be of greater concern than an ounce of bud. More generally, he sees the bill as just one more piece of regulation.
"The Legislature is going nuts about creating new laws regarding marijuana this year," McKay says.
For what it's worth, Memorial Hospital's chief of emergency medicine, Dr. George Hertner, says his ER doesn't see many people who have consumed too-potent edibles or concentrates. Hertner is more concerned about children getting into edibles, and people being aware of marijuana's effects on their judgment — like in driving while high.
"We hope that people make appropriate decisions," he says, "and don't put themselves or others in harm's way."