A photo of an edible marijuana candy above a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup shows how similar they look. 

(Photo: Courtesy of Smart Colorado)
The head of the emergency room at one of Denver's largest hospitals says he's seeing more people being admitted after consuming large quantities of edible marijuana in the form of cookies or other foods. 

Dr. Richard Zane, head of the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of Colorado Hospital, says the increase coincides with the legalization of recreational marijuana.

Dr. Zane says young, otherwise healthy adults are showing up at his emergency room agitated and anxious. He says some are hallucinating.

“They will say they see things or hear things that aren’t there," Zane says. "They see things on the wall or smell things.”   

Dr. Zane says University Hospital is admitting about a person a day for pot-related problems, and most are linked to edibles. Likewise, other ER physicians at metro area hospitals, including Denver Health Medical Center, say they're seeing more patients reacting to edibles. So far those reports are anecdotal, but one study at Children's Hospital Colorado showed an increase in ER admissions for young children due to reactions to marijuana.

Two recent deaths in the metro area have been linked to edibles. One was Levy Thamba Pongi, a college student visiting Denver, who jumped off his hotel balcony after reportedly eating six times the recommended serving of a marijuana cookie. The second, Kristine Kirk of Denver, was allegedly killed by her husband. Just before the murder Kirk called 911 and told an operator her husband had eaten edible marijuana and possibly consumed painkillers.

Dr. Richard Zane says the problem with edibles is they don’t take effect immediately, so often people continue eating them and ultimately take too much. Also, Zane says the drug isn’t always spread evenly through food or candy, so several people eating the same amounts can be ingesting different quantities of marijuana. And he says today's marijuana is grown differently than in years past, giving it a different effect than it used to. 

"This is not your grandma’s marijuana," says Dr. Zane. "It’s hard to describe from a medical perspective what it means to now have this in the populace."

Zane says legalization has added a certain legitimacy to using marijuana, which means inexperienced users are trying it.

"It’s [one] thing to say that one person who’s used marijuana before is gonna smoke a marijuana cigarette or eat one small piece of chocolate," says Zane. "It’s another thing when you have college students who are pretty naive who are sucking on a THC-infused lollipop and are psychotic for two or three days because they’ve never had this level of THC or this strength."

The Colorado General Assembly is considering several bills that deal with marijuana, including one measure (PDF) that would require makers of edibles to stamp, color or shape them with a standard symbol saying they contain marijuana, and that they're not for kids. The bill also restricts manufacturers from creating treats that can be reasonably mistaken for trademarked candies, a practice that is happening now.