UPDATE: A tour operator claims he warned Dowd about over-consumption. I added an update at the bottom of this post and explain why that doesn't change a thing. Originally published June 4 and then moved up.
Lots of people on the internet are mad—imagine that, people on the internet are mad!—about a Maureen Dowd column in today's New York Times.
Dowd was in Denver covering Colorado's new legal pot industry when she ate part of a pot-infused candy bar and had a pretty common experience: She got way too high. When she wrote about it, leaders of the legal pot industry thought she was fear-mongering, sensational, and attacking them. But as someone who has gotten way too high eating pot myself—and seen lots of other people get way too high themselves—her description sounds pretty damn familiar:
I felt a scary shudder go through my body and brain. I barely made it from the desk to the bed, where I lay curled up in a hallucinatory state for the next eight hours. 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.
I strained to remember where I was or even what I was wearing, touching my green corduroy jeans and staring at the exposed-brick wall. As my paranoia deepened, I became convinced that I had died and no one was telling me.
It took all night before it began to wear off, distressingly slowly. The next day, a medical consultant at an edibles plant where I was conducting an interview mentioned that candy bars like that are supposed to be cut into 16 pieces for novices; but that recommendation hadn’t been on the label.
Colorful writing? Yeah. She's a writer. But experiences much worse than Dowd's are increasingly common—Colorado hospitals are treating more overdoses from edibles. It's a problem. Still, she took responsibility for her actions. "I reckoned that the fact that I was not a regular marijuana smoker made me more vulnerable, and that I should have known better," Dowd wrote. Dowd said consumers need more information about the product they're buying and she pointed out a task force's excellent idea to demarcate edibles in serving sizes of 10 milligrams of THC, so users can calculate each dose. It's the classic personal story, big picture, solutions column.
But it infuriated the legal pot industry, which apparently considers coverage like this to be a dishonest attack on their kind and a deceptive conversation about edibles. Lots of activists and bloggers mocked Dowd. A lot. Taylor West, deputy director of National Cannabis Industry Association, unleashed a torrent on Twitter calling the column a "joke" and implying it wasn't "fact-based." Here was another one of her posts:
If @NYTDowd drank a handle of whiskey and ended up in the ER, would anyone consider a column blaming Jack Daniels credible? — Taylor West (@Taylor_West) June 4, 2014
This "it's the same as chugging hard liquor" analogy—an analogy echoed around the angry internet—misses the point so much that you'd have to be stoned and drunk to make it.* So I was curious what Dowd thought about the backlash, if she still supported legalization, etc.
So I e-mailed Dowd and she replied.
"I do support legalization," Dowd said by e-mail.
"Given that it's one of the great social revolutions of the 21st century, as Governor Hickenlooper says, there are bound to be rough patches as it's implemented," she said. "So they should be less defensive and more pro-active, like the governor's office."
The ironic thing is, the pro-pot lobby is making the same stupid mistake that the pro-prohibition crusaders have.
The Feds have exaggerated the harms of pot and downplayed the harms of prohibition for decades, so much that they lost credibility, and public opinion changed. When the pot industry downplays the harms of pot, they look irresponsible for being in denial, for being complicit, in harm. Refusing to nip this edible/OD/PR problem in the bud—ha!—could create more horror stories that make the pot industry look more irresponsible and lose credibility for the entire legalization movement in other states.
Public opinion could swing back toward prohibition, morons.
Even more idiotically, they're attacking a political ally because she's publicizing a solution to a legit issue. I get one of the minor criticism she's facing: Dowd briefly mentioned criminal episodes in Colorado after people consumed too many edibles, which seems unnecessary to me, but it's not untrue.
"I just think that there needs to be a better protocol of cautions at the point of sale," Dowd said. "As Andrew Freedman [Colorado's director of marijuana coordination] pointed out, the industry hasn't caught up with a culture that includes a lot of novices, or people who don't realize how much more potent pot is these days, or how edibles get ingested into the body in a different way. They just need to educate people more carefully and not assume that everyone will react the same way. I know there's some resistance. But I interviewed several industry types yesterday and they seemed amenable. They want it to be a fun experience, not a scary one."
Dowd ate about one-quarter of the small edible chocolate bar, which, given the estimation that the whole bar was about 16 doses, meant that a few nibbles was four doses.
As someone who's eaten way too much of a pot brownie, the worst part of a pot overdose is that you don't die—you just endure the misery.
To be fair, not everyone on Team Weed is being an idiot.
Tom Angell, founder of the advocacy group Marijuana Majority, said that "it's sad that many in the industry so far don't seem to realize that it's in their interest to provide basic information to consumers lest there be a public backlash, especially when we've got legalization initiatives on the ballot in several states this November and more to come in 2016."
* Eating a few bites of supercharged pot food—a quarter of a small candy bar, which is what Dowd did—is nothing like chugging a handle of Jack Daniels. This is a stupid comparison for a few reasons. Hard liquor tastes more strongly of alcohol than beer or wine, so you get a better sense of how much you're ingesting. Liquor also hits faster, so it's easier to regulate. Booze also has more predictable potency standards (beer, wine, spirits). More to the point here, society has centuries of mainstream knowledge about alcohol. Pot's different on every count. Folks aren't familiar with it, especially not mass-produced pot candies. A mild-flavored edible can actually have a high concentration of THC—something that taste would never warn you about. And unlike a liquid, edibles can have inconsistent concentrations that lead to uneven dosing. Pot proselytizers love saying pot is soooooo different from alcohol, but, when pot is actually more risky, they claim they're identical. BS.
UPDATE ON JUNE 5: Some folks are linking to this article as evidence that Dowd shouldn't have written her column and that she's "full of shit."
Matt Brown, co-founder of tourism company My 420 Tours, claims to have given journalists including Dowd a four-hour tour in which he touched upon edibles and their potency. Some folks are howling, "Dowd was warned!" And it sounds like she was warned in a general sense, among a flood of other new information. But that doesn't change the central point. Newer users encountering edibles of unpredictable strength could benefit from more product-specific information about potency. Because Dowd missed few comments out of a four-hour tour—information that isn't specific to one product, which is her point—her ideas about labeling are supposedly bullshit? That's the bullshit.
Dowd should have done more research into what she was consuming, and she's acknowledged that, but that, too, misses the point. Dowd had a very typical experience. A typical experience indicative of a problem. Mocking her as a anomalous lightweight is a denial of the evidence: Lots of these edibles are powerful, they have unpredictable potency, and tons of users—especially novice users, which will increasingly be the norm under legalization—have trouble with them. So blaming a person for making a mistake is backwards. Dowd learned from her mistake so others, and the industry, could learn, too. The howlers and jackals who don't want to learn are dooming more folks to the same innocent mistake, denying risk, harming the legal pot industry, and doing a disservice to legalization in other states.