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Candy suckers for sale on Jan. 1. Proprietors in Colorado who sell marijuana-infused food, known as edibles, may legally do so but face questions of standards and quality. Rick Wilking/Reuters
Sweet Grass Truffle Brownie, Incredibles Peanut Budda Buddha, Beyond Mars Fruit Chewz, Chocolit, Claudie Bears—the menus at Colorado marijuana dispensaries often read like a tour of Willy Wonka’s factory.
But if you envision Oompa-Loompas running around commercial kitchens and happily producing entirely legal marijuana-infused food products — known in the trade as edibles — you may have eaten one too many chocolate bars.
The edibles industry is a serious business across the country, producing candy bars, flavored drinks, hard candies, infused taffy and gummy bears as well as an array of high-end baked goods. And with the legalization of marijuana for recreational use in Colorado comes some uncharted territory for foodies and pot fans alike.
Many companies producing edibles are anticipating a boom in the food segment of the marijuana economy. But the expected increase in marijuana tourism leaves some worried about the effects of the potent products on inexperienced users. As Colorado blazes the trail, companies that produce edibles are at the forefront of regulation to maintain standard doses as well as producing products compliant with food-industry standards and keeping consumers informed about exactly what it is they’re eating.
Over the past five years, edibles have come a long way from the inconsistent brownies wrapped in labelless cellophane that most people think of when hearing “edible marijuana.”
Certainly, putting marijuana in food raises some unique issues. “The focus is on health and safety this year with regard to edibles,” said Mark Slaugh, CEO of iComply, a cannabis regulatory-affairs company dealing with regulations and compliance in Colorado. “We have taken a lot of measures to prevent accidental ingestion by children and those who may think it is just a regular product.”
By law, labels cannot be designed to appeal to children, and any retail marijuana product must leave the store in a child-resistant container. This is no simple task when marketing products like infused suckers that look like lollipops, bars of chocolate and chewy candies. But if they do it right in Colorado, more states could follow suit.
Edible products are infused with a concentrated form of oil extracted from marijuana flowers. Once the oil has been removed from the plant, it goes through a bit of chemistry.
“Basically we melt the oil down through a process called decarboxylation. It activates the cannabinoids and makes them available for your receptors to bind to,” said “Claude the Candyman,” owner of SweetStone Candy, which started in Grand Rapids, Mich., and moved to Colorado in 2011 for the more liberal medicinal-marijuana laws. (As you might expect, his moniker is not his real name, which he prefers to keep out of the press.)
In a nutshell, decarboxylation is the process that activates THC, the psychoactive compound that allows users to get a high on edibles.
For instance, his signature product, the Claudie Bear, is a 30-gram giant gummy bear containing 100 milligrams of THC. After the oil for the gummy bears goes through the decarboxylation process, it is sent to a lab to test for potency, mold and other contaminants. Once the results are in, the numbers are plugged into an equation that tells the cooks how much oil to use in a recipe to ensure even doses. Regulation and a consistent potency are important factors for the edibles industry to gain credibility.
Colorado law caps the TCH level at 100 milligrams per unit for recreational edibles; any product over 100 milligrams is strictly for medicinal purposes. One dose is 10 milligrams, and the number of doses taken recreationally or prescribed medicinally depends on users’ tolerance and needs.
A different kind of high
Consumer awareness and education is important in the edible world. When marijuana is eaten, it can take 45 minutes to an hour or even longer for the buzz to kick in. Once it does, it can last up to eight hours. Because the THC in the candies and chocolates is concentrated, it’s very potent.
Marijuana tourism is a concern for some distributors. “People used to be afraid of edibles. It processes differently through the liver. It’s a different kind of high,” said Bob (who asked to have his last name withheld after the federal government froze the bank account of a friend in the industry), one of the owners of Incredibles. “My concern is all of these people will come into the state and not understand the potency of the flowers or the edibles.”
Incredibles was started four years ago, making mostly pastry goods, like brownies with pot butter. The fledgling company was struggling when Adam Dunn, a hemp industrialist, heard about it from a friend.
Dunn, who moved to the Netherlands from the U.S. in 1989, is the founder of both T.H.Seeds, a seed company, and a clothing line called Hemp HoodLamb. His advice to the Incredibles team: Go for more-stable products with a longer shelf life, such as chocolate bars. He has since moved to Colorado and has consulted for Incredibles.
The Incredibles’ Boulder Bar is a perfect example of how far the edibles industry has come. It is two kinds of chocolate mixed with house-made toffee. One bar is the size of a Hershey bar and contains 100 milligrams of THC. Bob advises people to start with one square and see how they feel. Eating the whole bar at once could send an inexperienced marijuana tourist into panic mode. Each square is dosed evenly, with baby steps advised for the inexperienced.
Both Sweet Stone Candy and Incredibles are produced through the Medically Correct kitchen in Colorado. While both men say they would someday like to see Amsterdam-style cannabis cafes, Claude said that for now he would settle for a cannabis-infused aisle in grocery stores.
Profit in discretion
Julie Berliner is the owner of Sweet Grass Kitchen, and she is working on a new item geared toward the supermarket consumer: break-and-bake cookie dough.
It’s “kind of a no-brainer,” she said.
Berliner started her company in 2009 at the age of 23. She proudly owns her production kitchen now and employs two professionally trained pastry chefs. She says the taste and quality of the cookies and brownies she bakes is just as important to her as proper dosing.
But making a living out of edibles is not straightforward. Owning the business outright is difficult in an industry that has been made legal by the state but not the federal government. It has little legitimacy in the banking industry as well, so small-business loans aren’t available. Many edible entrepreneurs have to take on partners or invest personal funds. Without federal approval, benefits and support afforded other small businesses are unavailable. Until the kinks are worked out of the budding new industry, cannabis cooks will have to stick with the most valuable aspect of pot-infused food: discretion.
The ability to be discreet is what most producers believe will allow edibles to grab a bigger chunk of the growing marijuana industry. The Colorado Futures Center at Colorado State University projects that the industry will bring in over $600 million from July 1, 2014, to June 30, 2015.
“Colorado has done it right because it’s credible and legitimate. It’s not all ‘Lets have fun and get high,’” said Eric, director of marketing for Cheeba Chews. Eric asked that his last name be withheld, since his occupation is federally illegal.
That is one of the ironies of the edible industry: People running legitimate businesses, compliant with state rules and regulations, still have to be cautious about federal prosecution.
Cheeba Chews makes marijuana-infused taffy. One little 10-gram piece can hold 75 to 175 milligrams of marijuana extract. It packs a powerful punch in a small package. It is illegal to smoke marijuana in public — anywhere, really, except a private residence in Colorado — but Cheeba Chews and other edibles can provide a buzz anytime.
December was a record month for the company, Eric said, which raises another question the edibles industry must consider.
“Can we keep up with the demand? is the question,” he said. “If demand stays where it’s at, can we keep up?”