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What are you smoking — no, really?

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If you’re inclined to have an alcoholic beverage on occasion, I suspect that you don’t simply go into a restaurant or bar and say "Give me a drink," not knowing whether you’re going to get a glass of merlot or a shot of tequila.

As an informed consumer, you’re likely to know that those two options are very different in appearance, taste, smell and alcohol content. We order a drink that’s specific to the experience we want.

Something similar might be said of the fruits and vegetables we eat. We can buy organic products, helping us eliminate some or all of the pesticides and inorganic fertilizers that may be used to grow these foods.

It’s not so simple for a cannabis patient in the U.S. 18 states (plus the U.S. capital) where marijuana is legal for medical purposes, or in Colorado and Washington, where marijuana has been approved for recreational use. The consumer is left either uninformed or, at best, with anecdotal information. Standards and industry benchmarks don’t exist. With marijuana, you don’t really know what you’re going to get.

Yet there are some things we know. Modern growing techniques and available cannabis strains are yielding more potent marijuana today than in years past. Concentrations of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the most widely recognized psychotropic component in marijuana, have increased consistently since the 1970s, when they were on average believed to be about one per cent.

Today’s medical-grade marijuana, which is often available to recreational users, has THC concentrations that average 16 per cent and can reach 24 per cent or higher.

There is an argument within the industry that stronger THC concentrations lead consumers to smoke or ingest less cannabis product. This might have the equation backward. I believe it’s more likely that overconsumption occurs, and possibly before consumers know they have exceeded their comfort level. This is one reason that formal quality guidelines and labeling are needed.

Some, but not all, states require oversight of commercial growers, monitoring production quantities and security of the plants and related equipment. But the focus is on how much marijuana is being cultivated and whether the facilities are safe and won’t be an easy target for thieves.

There are few rules for how a plant is grown, what fertilizers are used or what pesticides are sprayed on the plants. And though many growers are very prudent about how they raise their crops to ensure safe cannabis, not all are so careful. Some let the profit incentive override safety concerns.

Here’s an example of what can happen in the absence of strict monitoring of production techniques: Say a grower winds up with an infestation of spider mites, a common pest that can cause severe damage to household plants and to marijuana, too. The grower may well spray the plants with a chemical pesticide that can stay on leaf surfaces through harvest and consumption. Because cannabis is usually smoked as the method of ingestion, any residual pesticide will be taken directly into the consumers’ lungs, which may be dangerous.

In November, Colorado voters backed the legalization of recreational marijuana use. The law’s tag line was, "Regulate marijuana like alcohol." This was an easy way to explain to voters that marijuana would be sold much like alcohol: through designated stores and only to those older than 21. The stores would be licenced and monitored by the state, and marijuana would be properly labeled. Washington state’s law was approved with a similar proviso.

It isn’t yet clear what information labels should show. Focus groups, involving industry participants, government officials and the public, are still working on promulgating rules.

The marijuana industry (both medical and recreational) needs to develop production standards concerning pesticides and chemicals and appropriate disclosure on the labels. Warnings should be included about driving or operating machinery and that use by those younger than 21 is illegal. The industry should also create a simple grading system that shows THC potency. It probably wouldn’t need to be as specific as the alcohol-content labels on most beverages, but perhaps based on a scale of "light," "medium," "heavy" and "extra heavy." That way a consumer will be less likely to exceed his or her limit.

Robert Frichtel is managing partner of the Medical Marijuana Business Exchange.

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