If your holiday plans take you to the parts of the country where recreational marijuana use is now legal — Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska or Washington, D.C. — you may be tempted to join the party.
Before you do however, it’s important to understand that legal doesn’t mean unrestricted. Plenty of rules remain regarding cannabis use even in the areas with the most liberal policies, and these can trip you up if you’re not wary. And because marijuana likes to stick around in the user’s system, it has the potential to follow you in unintended ways.
There are things to consider, in short, before lighting up or reaching for that edible. Here are a few of the most crucial:
The laws are confusing, and it’s up to you to know them.
Marijuana regulations are a confusing patchwork. The drug remains illegal at the federal level, for example, legal in some states, OK only for medical use in others and completely off limits elsewhere. And even within states, regulations can vary from city to city. When the rules bump up against each other, you can easily become an unintentional scofflaw.
Consider Colorado’s ski resorts, for example. More than 20 of them are on U.S. Forest Service land, meaning they are subject to federal law. It’s the same story for the state’s national parks. So while you might have bought that marijuana legally in a licensed retail store in Denver, don’t expect to take your purchase with you skiing at Vail or on that hike at Rocky Mountain National Park.
It’s up to you to know the laws in the areas you plan to visit. “It would be incorrect to assume that the way Oklahoma treats marijuana is the way Texas treats marijuana is the way Colorado treats marijuana and so on,” explained Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). “Possession and use and cultivation and driving — all these issues are treated differently from state to state. And if one is engaging in any activity that could potentially carry criminal ramifications, obviously there is some burden on the individual to educate themselves as to what the laws are.”
To help, NORML maintains a state-by-state guide to marijuana laws at norml.org/laws. States and cities that allow recreational marijuana also commonly provide fact sheets about appropriate use on their websites.
Just because your use was legal doesn’t guarantee you won’t be held liable for it later.
Marijuana’s psychoactive ingredient, THC, is fat-soluble, meaning it is excreted from the body slowly. As a result, it can show up on marijuana drug tests long after use, making it tough to determine when a person is actually impaired.
A blood test is considered the most accurate measure, and that’s what you’ll likely be asked to submit to if ever suspected of driving under the influence of cannabis. But it’s far from perfect. A 2015 study, for example, showed the presence of THC in the blood of some habitual marijuana users up to seven days after their last smoke. And the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concludes that “It is inadvisable to try and predict effects based on blood THC concentrations alone.”
A urine test is even more problematic, identifying a THC byproduct that can show up days, weeks, or, in the case of heavy users, even months after marijuana was last consumed.
What does this mean for you?
Say you vacation in Colorado, enjoy a perfectly legal joint or two, return home and on Monday, you are drug-tested by your employer. A urine test is the norm in such situations, so chances are you’ll test positive. Can the company fire you even though your use took place in a situation where consumption was legal and you are obviously not still impaired? In a word, yes.
Or imagine this scenario: You live in Oklahoma, one of several states that considers driving with any amount of marijuana in your system, whether you are impaired or not, as driving under the influence. One weekend, you drive to Colorado, smoke some marijuana, wait four hours for the effects to wear off as recommended by NORML, and drive back. On the way, you’re involved in an accident and fault is at question. The marijuana that shows up in your system may have had nothing to do with the crash, but it may be tough making the case.
It’s a worst-case scenario to be sure, Armentano said, and not a common occurrence, “but certainly I am aware of situations where there is an allegation from the defendant that that is exactly what has occurred — that they are being punished for their use of cannabis at some much earlier point in time.”
Edibles are tricky.
Edible marijuana products, everything from cannabis-infused brownies to sodas to candy, have proven popular in states with retail marijuana sales — but they’ve also been problematic.
Here’s why: inhaled cannabis goes from the lungs directly to the bloodstream and then passes the blood-brain barrier. The effects are felt almost instantly, are relatively predictable and tend to fade within an hour or so. By contrast, Armentano explained, when cannabis is consumed as food, it must first travel through the stomach and then to the liver, where the THC is converted into a psychoactive metabolite known as 11-hydroxy-THC, which can add to the high. In addition, each person metabolizes THC differently. That means edibles are more unpredictable, their effects can take a couple of hours to kick in and they’ll last longer — perhaps six to eight hours.
If you want to give edibles a try, keep these recommendations in mind:
- Pay attention to the serving sizes, which should be clearly marked on the packaging. A single cookie, for example, may represent multiple servings.
- Be patient. When people get into trouble with edibles, it is usually because they don’t feel anything right away and assume they need to eat more. Remember, it may be hours before you feel any effects. Wait it out.
- Don’t drive. The high with edibles is a long time coming and a long time leaving. NORML recommends playing it safe and not driving on a day you consume edible cannabis.
- Be prepared. If you’ve tried inhaled marijuana before, the edible experience is likely to be different. With consumed marijuana, you’re not only feeling the effects of the THC but of the 11-hydroxy-THC. “When those two are combined, there is a greater possibility of dysphoria and an unpleasant effect,” Armentano noted.
Another thing to note: Public use of marijuana is illegal, even in the states that allow recreational use (although what constitutes “public” can vary). Part of the reason for the popularity of edibles is that they can be consumed more surreptitiously than inhaled marijuana. But be aware that it is just as illegal to consume edibles in public as it is to fire up a joint.
Buy wisely — and save the alcohol for another day.
It’s a common refrain in the current national conversation about marijuana: This isn’t your grandfather’s pot. While it’s true that more powerful strains exist today, it’s also true that marijuana of all THC potency levels is generally available in a legal retail store and should be clearly marked. Ask the staff at the store for recommendations. “Proprietors hopefully have educated their staff so they are able to provide answers to consumer questions and potentially tailor their purchases,” Armentano said.
Even if you do get more than you bargained for, Armentano noted, “the bottom line is THC is relatively nontoxic and it is incapable of causing lethal overdose, so regardless of the amount of THC someone consumes, we are really talking about a product that at most is going to make a person feel temporarily uncomfortable.”
When consuming your purchase, resist the temptation to pair it with alcohol. Research suggests that alcohol can cause THC levels in the blood to spike, Armentano said. “There is some sort of interaction going on … where the effect of the two drugs combined is more dramatic than the drugs administered in isolation.”
You can’t take it with you.
When your trip is over, be sure to dispose of any remaining pot purchases. It’s illegal to transport marijuana across state lines, even from Oregon to Washington, which both allow recreational use.
The rules may allow you to “gift” a small amount of your leftovers to someone in your party, but don’t even think about handing off anything to someone who is technically underage. One rule you can count on no matter where recreational marijuana is allowed is that it is legal only for those 21 or older.