At its meeting on Tuesday night, New Jersey's Cannabis Regulatory Commission mulled popular confections like candies, chocolate bars and brownies.
If permitted as part of the state's infant recreational marijuana economy, those sweets may have look-alikes containing THC — the active ingredient in cannabis — and children, pets and adults may unwittingly sample them.
Commissioners on Tuesday listened to invited experts who told them of ways to label and package a broad range of marijuana edibles with the goal of warding off children and adults who are after the sweet, but not the high.
Voters last November overwhelmingly approved the decriminalization of recreational marijuana use for people 21 and older and the commission has begun the process of defining the state's marijuana sector. The commission announced at the meeting that it will begin to accept the first license applications, but only for cultivators, manufacturers and testing labs, on December 15.
The commission has released its initial rules, which would not open the market to a wide range of cannabis edibles. New Jersey medical marijuana dispensaries now sell only lozenges and fruit-flavored gummies as edibles.
However, whether the New Jersey edible market is severely limited or opened to a menu of edibles, experts warned commissioners that labeling needs to be loud and understood by children.
"For a 2-year-old, sometimes a brownie is going to look like a brownie," said Dr. Diane P. Calello, executive director of the New Jersey Poison Control Center. The goal should be "trying to deter those children, on their own, from using the products. That, I think, is the Holy Grail and is the most difficult thing to accomplish."
Another need for clear warning labels: "We want to avoid unintended or unwitting consumption by adults who may not realize they are consuming a product that has cannabis in it," Calello told commissioners.
Experts told the commission that other states that have legalized marijuana have struggled over which universal symbols and labeling to select and what colors should be used.
Children and adults who mistakenly have consumed a marijuana edible, particularly with the edibles' delayed effects, likely will not know what is happening to them.
"Unfamiliar users are more likely to experience adverse effects," Calello said. The THC's delayed onset "takes people by surprise," she said.
David Hammond, of the School of Public Health Sciences at the University of Waterloo in Canada, told commissioners that packaging and labeling have different components with different objectives. "The purpose of a universal symbol is to identify a product as a THC-containing cannabis product. And the primary purpose is to avoid unintentional ingestion," he said.
"We have both a wide diversity of products and we have overlap with food consumer products, especially for edibles," he explained. "Many product forms are inherently appealing to both children and adults and that's really behind a lot of the accidental or unintentional ingestion."
The "anchor point" for identification on packages should be the universal symbol for cannabis, said Dr. David L. Nathan, a Princeton physician who is the founder of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation and a clinical associate professor at Rutgers University's Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.
Nathan advocated for the commissioners to adopt the symbol that he and his son, Eli Nathan, a product designer and University of Pennsylvania student, developed. The "International Intoxicating Cannabis Product Symbol" shows a cannabis leaf in the traditional warning triangle in yellow.
Ten states and Canada have adopted nine different symbols designating a product as containing intoxicating cannabis, he told commissioners. "All of them have design problems generally pertaining to color, shape, symbology or the prohibited use of text inside a graphic symbol," he added.
Nathan said that Montana's proposed cannabis rules include his symbol and Vermont appears ready to adopt it, although the state is debating colors. He also said the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) is involved in a process that would make Nathan's symbol the global consensus standard.
Another expert, Robert Mejia, an adjunct professor at Stockton University where he teaches in the cannabis studies program, said edible marijuana accounts for about 12% of all legal cannabis sales and its share is expected to grow.
The most popular marijuana edibles, he told commissioners, are gummies, chocolates, baked goods and hard candies. However, other edibles include chips, power bars, granola and THC-infused cooking and baking ingredients such as butters, oils, maple syrup and honey.
In an interview Wednesday with 70and73.com, Mejia said the most popular way of using marijuana is smoking, followed by vaping. Edibles rank in about third place, said Mejia, an author who wrote the "Essential Cannabis Book: A Field Guide for the Curious" and is the founder of Our Community Harvest, a cannabis education company. He lives in Mahwah, Bergen County.
At the commission meeting, Mejia pushed for child-resistant packaging of cannabis edibles, much like similar protections for prescription medication.
An edible typically has 10 milligrams, with that amount in a piece of chocolate, one lollipop or a gummy, he told 70and73.com.
After consuming an edible, it can take from 30 minutes to two hours to feel the effects, he said. The feeling spreads to the whole body and then to the head and the high can last as long as four to eight hours.
The danger to children, pets and uninitiated adults is that they will not understand what is happening to them and may feel panicked, paranoid, anxious and develop nausea or a headache, Mejia said. People who unknowingly ingest the edible should be kept hydrated, calm and distracted and, ideally, encouraged to sleep, he added.
Manufacturing of cannabis edibles for the New Jersey recreational market will require a state processing license and Mejia told the commission those running the kitchens should be certified both in food handling as well as in using cannabis as part of the recipe.
Students at Stockton study cannabis as a minor requiring five classes, with the program often linked to their majors in health or business, Mejia said. The department expects to graduate 50 students with a minor in cannabis studies this spring.