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Colorado works to educate marijuana tourists

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You’re in Colorado, where recreational marijuana is legal.

You decide to indulge and eat a weed brownie. (First one since college!)

Nothing seems to happen. You can still reel off the state capitals, hold a coherent conversation and an entire bag of salt-and-vinegar potato chips doesn’t sound particularly tasty.

So you eat another brownie. And, waiting for something to happen, perhaps one more.

And then — blam! Anxiety. Sweats. Panic. Heart palpations. And your Colorado vacation takes an unwelcome turn to the emergency room.

Another potential outcome, of course, is that you have an extraordinarily fun night and play video games. But the more dramatic scenario has happened with increased regularity, according to a Northwestern doctor’s study to be published Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Out-of-state visitors to Colorado emergency rooms for marijuana-related symptoms accounted for 163 per 10,000 visits in 2014, up from 78 per 10,000 visits in 2012, according to research published by Dr. Howard Kim, a Northwestern research fellow and emergency medicine physician.

The 109 percent increase far outpaced the 44 percent increase among Colorado residents since the state’s recreational marijuana sales began Jan. 1, 2014.

Kim, who was a resident at the University of Colorado when the research began, didn’t study how marijuana was consumed by patients who showed up in his emergency room with mostly gastrointestinal, psychiatric and cardiovascular issues. But the most likely cause, he said, was edible marijuana, and tourists’ lack of understanding about dosing themselves.

According to a Colorado Tourism Office survey, 8 percent of visitors to the state during the first half of 2015 visited a marijuana dispensary. Nearly 7 percent of respondents said that the legalization of marijuana was a primary motivation for their trip, up from 2 percent the previous year.

With 426 retail cannabis outlets across the state as of Feb. 1, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue, educating visitors has been a challenge on a number of levels, said Mike Van Dyke, who monitors the potential health impacts of legalized marijuana for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Despite the legalization, prohibitions abound, including smoking in public and smoking in most hotels and public indoor spaces. Visitors have been careless about disposing leftover weed at the end of a trip and often don’t know they’re not allowed to legally transport the marijuana out of state, Van Dyke said.

But the biggest difficulty has been educating tourists about marijuana edibles. With public smoking prohibited and only retail shops selling marijuana — there is nothing like Amsterdam’s legendary cafes for tourists to frequent in Colorado, which has a handful of private pot-smoking clubs — visitors are often left to indulge in marijuana edibles for a high. But most people have no idea how to properly dose themselves and fail to realize the unique potency of Colorado marijuana until it’s too late.

Marijuana advocates have adopted a slogan of “Start low and go slow” with regard to edibles, and shared the sentiment on Denver billboards with the advice, “Don’t let a candy bar ruin your vacation.”

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