Matt Brown, co-founder of My 420 Tours in Denver, spent several hours guiding New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd through the ins and outs of Colorado’s legal marijuana industry back in January.
So he had concerns about the reaction to Dowd’s column about her experience in Colorado, which was published this week. Dowd described entering a “hallucinatory state” for eight hours because she nibbled too much of a marijuana-infused candy bar, writing that as she grew more paranoid she was “convinced that I had died and no one was telling me.”
Brown told The Cannabist, a website managed by The Denver Post that covers marijuana culture, that he had warned Dowd about the unpredictability of edibles. When Dowd finally addressed the reactions to her original column, she said she didn’t recall Brown mentioning edibles.
“I wrote in the column that I take responsibility for not knowing enough about what I was doing,” Dowd wrote in the statement obtained by The Cannabist. “I was focused more on the fun than the risks. In that sense, I’m probably like many other people descending on Denver.”
So TPM caught up with Brown on Thursday to ask why he thinks his advice went unheeded, as well as to get his insight into how Dowd’s column could affect the perception of the legal pot industry in the state.
TPM: You told The Cannabist that Dowd called you right before this column ran, correct?
MATT BROWN: Yeah, she called me two days ago, Tuesday afternoon. And it’s the first I’d heard that she’d had an extreme reaction. And we talked about it … we talked a lot about, you know, there’s not a simple proofing system, like with alcohol. The line — I’ve done dozens of these in person, I’ve done 200 media tours in the last year so there’s certain lines that I know just roll off my tongue without thinking — one of them is, I have Crohn’s disease. I do not absorb food normally. And when I’m talking to somebody, I’m very clear that I’m not the person to ask about dosing because that entire candy bar that sent her into her room for the night probably wouldn’t do anything to me. And it’s not because the candy bar is inconsistent or the industry doesn’t know what it’s doing. It’s that if you don’t have any tolerance and you don’t process food a certain way, you could have a very extreme reaction off of a couple milligrams. And if you do have a pretty high tolerance, it might be a completely different experience. So that’s why everybody kind of coaches certain newbies: start slow. Wait. This is not like alcohol. It’s not heroin, but it’s not simple, it’s not water either.
I think after 24 hours or so of seeing everything that came out [after Dowd’s column was published], and putting it all together, synthesizing, I think this is an example of why we need to follow directions. Sometimes in life there are warnings that you hear and ignore, and there are other warnings that you need to listen to, pay attention. I think the thing to be careful of when we talk about harm, or what happens if something like [Dowd’s reaction] happens — there’s not a risk of her dying in her hotel room. There’s not a medical danger in that same way as extreme drugs. But it’s also incredibly uncomfortable. It’s not a comforting position to be in, which is sort of the opposite point of using marijuana. It does bring up that if you don’t listen, or if you think you know what you’re doing, or you start nibbling on the candy bar, it does take a person to remember that this is not just chocolate. This is medicine, this is a recreation, this is a relaxation, this is a whatever you want it to be. It’s not water. And you can’t just drink it all and then hope nothing happens.
So do you think she heard this warning and sort of discarded the advice, or that she’s just somebody who’s new to it and not processing that advice correctly?
That’s a tough question. I have a hard time believing that she just missed the advice. When you spend a few hours with somebody, particularly in the context of a media tour, where it is me and you, one-on-one, and I talk for hours explaining everything. It’s one thing to say, here’s somebody who didn’t know any better, and went to a store by themselves. And the person behind the counter said be sure you break this into a few pieces and don’t take it all at once. It’s a completely different environment, then, to say in the course of a three-plus hour tour, with talking and multiple instruction points — it’s a little harder to believe that all of that was missed. But it does sound like she certainly didn’t take the warnings as strongly as they could have been.
And I did talk to her yesterday. Especially when it comes to people who don’t use marijuana, currently, regularly, who don’t have a tolerance or whatever, and then you combine that with a vacation, where they fly into town, it’s a compressed period of time. There’s that I-have-to-get-everything-done-while-I’m-here approach, particularly in media. You compare that to somebody who lives in Colorado, who has a similar level of tolerance. You would see them buy the candy bar and then giggle for two weeks that they took the tiniest little piece every single night until they finally got to that point that worked. Two weeks later, you still live here, the stores are still open, you can know which one you want. When you see somebody coming in who’s going home, trying to get that “South Park” legalized weed feel, like bouncing off the walls and wanting to buy everything, it does take some time. Someone there guiding you and talking that down, or at the very least, we bring people in for three- or four-day tours, it’s much easier. We take you to a cooking class, you’re talking the whole time, there’s non-medicated chocolates you can dip in and all those sorts of things. And then we take them for the afternoon, and if somebody had eaten too much we could get them back to the hotel to sleep and take care of them. When you don’t listen to instructions, buy a bunch of stuff, stay in your hotel and get really high, there’s a degree of personal responsibility.
I think perhaps the interesting timing is this happens also to be the week, I believe yesterday there were hearings all day, coming up with some of the new rules on edibles labeling and packaging. They’re really seriously taking up the same questions that I think Maureen Dowd’s column brought up yesterday. We need to be careful, then, that there’s not an excess of hyperbole in the mix of a serious regulatory discussion. In some ways, events like this do help to draw a point on real problems and create a real discussion. And sometimes they’re a distraction and they’re a flashpoint and they have the potential to derail a lot of seriousness. I think that if there’s one thing to be careful of, or to really watch closely with an article like hers yesterday, is that it doesn’t just escape out into the ether and become fact or become viewed as some sort of negligence on the part of the industry or on the part of the people making the edibles or selling them.
In this particular case, I happen to know incredibly well from first-person experience, that the lead-up to that experience that she wrote about was comprehensive. Even after three hours of explaining everything and lots of details, you still see an intelligent person who will ignore those recommendations. That, I think, is the crux of the problem.
Is there anything else that you took particular issue with in Dowd’s column after you read it?
I didn’t take as much issue with her column specifically. It was more, again, having some context and wondering what if this or that point were added in. If there’s one critical failure that I see in the regulatory system or just in the environment that we have that does occasionally lead to these sorts of things, it’s that even in the case of Colorado, we don’t have a way where specifically visitors and newcomers or people who don’t have friends who smoke can have that socialization experience. Three-quarters of a century after the end of Prohibition, we’ve learned with alcohol. I can think back to being younger and knowing oh, I just saw that guy puke, I don’t ever want to be the guy puking in the corner of the bar. So when I did start drinking, it was very slow. It was that slow process of learning “Oh, 15 shots of 151 is different than three beers.” In some ways it’s easier with alcohol in that there’s a much more linear response. You have a proofing system, with a number that makes sense, and you can get a pretty good idea comparatively of the potency of one drink versus another. You don’t — the science is not there for cannabis. I can look at two different products, a chocolate bar that has 20 milligrams and two gummy bears that have a total of 20 milligrams of THC, and the body may synthesize that completely different. Somebody who is fine on a gummy bear may have a different experience on chocolate. People like me, I don’t eat edibles, because they just don’t work. So we’re missing that proofing system.
But we’re really missing a chance for people, like Maureen, to just sit in a social environment and just talk to other people their age, their demographic, their level of tolerance, just — others. And then slowly titrate up to a point that they’re using it and it’s fun and it’s not overwhelming and it’s not a scary experience. Especially for tourists, when your only option is to come to one of our hundreds of marijuana stores and then go hide in your hotel room and hope that it all works out because you [don’t know] your dosage, that doesn’t make sense.
There’s a lot of concern here in Colorado that we don’t want to be Amsterdam. The state government, especially, doesn’t seem to know what that means. We don’t want every bar downtown to allow pot smoking too, nobody’s saying that. But if there’s not anywhere else other than your home, your friend’s house or a hotel room where you can go and learn, these sorts of experiences could continue to be more common. Whether they smoke it, they eat it, however they ingest the cannabis, what’s missing is that ability to compare yourself to others and scale back.
Did anything else strike you about your conversation with Dowd on Tuesday?
Not really. We talked obviously in January quite a bit. I don’t think I talked to her right after she left. I know we talked quite a bit then. Yesterday it seemed very similar. I knew she was writing about it, she mentioned she had the extreme experience. It wasn’t a “Hey, tomorrow I’m going to be writing a story that the whole Internet is going to have your brain knocked about,” but it was prudent — questions, talking. A lot of her questions were really sort of a debriefing, what needs to happen. That was most of what we talked about, the inability to socialize and to have a specific number.
In a lot of ways the conversation would have been better or should have happened the next day or a day or two after when she was here. Because it was a debrief, it was a “Wow, that was more than I was hoping for, what do I do to avoid this in the future?” That I think kind of got lost once the final column was out and there’s only so many words. I think it did downplay the level of personal responsibility in the overall context of the story. This is not about Colorado coming and getting strangers so high they can’t function. We have an entire state of people who have brought marijuana out of the shadows so that demographics who do not smoke pot all the time have an ability to access — whether it’s medical or recreational — anybody from anywhere in the world can now walk into a store if they’re over 21 and purchase.
Anything else you recall about your time touring with her?
I really wish we would’ve smoked that joint and gone to the Mitt Romney documentary. I think I may have been the only person on Earth who really did want to get high with Maureen Dowd, but I had to fly out.
Catherine Thompson is a senior editor for Talking Points Memo in New York City. She came to the site in 2013 and reported on national affairs. Previously, she worked as a research assistant to investigative reporter Wayne Barrett. She can be reached at email@example.com.