Marijuana may soon become mainstream for adults in Colorado and Washington state, but before it reaches that point, regulators face a tall task: making sure that newly available pot products don't become a hazard to public health.
Months before legal sales of the drug begin, officials in both states are struggling to come up with health and safety rules to govern a menu of marijuana offerings ranging from leafy greens to food and drinks.
Pot, like other agricultural commodities, could be subject to problems ranging from mold, mites and pesticide residue in the raw plants to solvents, E. coli, salmonella and run-of-the mill food safety risks in prepared products, experts say.
Government agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration won't weigh in because marijuana remains illegal under federal law. That leaves state officials to come up with a framework for policing production and distribution for an entirely new industry.
"It's important for us to do it because it's public safety and there's no U.S. FDA oversight here," said Randy Simmons, the Washington State Liquor Control Board project manager in charge of implementing Initiative 502. "Things that would be FDA rules don't exist."
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Sales in Washington, Colorado
Voters in both states legalized recreational marijuana use for adults last fall. Washington is set to issue producer, processor and retail licenses by Dec. 1; Colorado is set to start sales by January.
As it stands now, laws in both states skirt the public health issues of medical pot production. No quality control tests are required; there's no mechanism for recalling contaminated pot products. And the framework for new rules remains a work in progress.
"Currently, there's really nothing codified," said Julie Postlethwait, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Revenue, which will run a new adult marijuana program. Under that state's existing law, medical marijuana products were explicitly excluded from state rules governing food and drugs.
In Washington state, a burgeoning market for "medibles" — foods infused with medical marijuana — has flown almost entirely under any regulatory radar.
Producers like Karen Brower, co-owner of Puff n Stuf products, say they've taken it upon themselves to make sure that food safety is a top priority.
"I'm concerned about it, of course, because that's huge for us," says the 54-year-old Tacoma woman. "If the health department came into my kitchen, I'm sure that I would pass."
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Marijuana Susceptible to Mold, Pests
Still, there are no tests for Brower or her partner, Julie Guterson, 54, to take, no inspectors to review her stainless steel sinks or to review the sanitizing cycle of her dishwasher. She sees the need for new regulations for the larger recreational pot market, but she's worried it might create stricter standards that her small operation will be unable to meet.
"We just put our nose to the grindstone and we just keep pumping out medibles for patients," she said. "That's what we're going to do right now."
Julie Guterson sells cannabis-infused foods at the Puff n Stuf booth in one of the two locations of the NW Cannabis Market in Seattle. "I'm working out of my home. We have no pets - we tie our hair back and wear clean shirts."
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