State pot regulators’ caution slows arrival of edibles

Pot-infused edibles are trickling onto shelves at marijuana stores, and more products are coming, despite a shortage of legal pot and new last-minute state regulations. Entrepreneurs have bemoaned the slow pace, but regulators are being cautious about public health.

 Pot-infused edibles began trickling to store shelves last month, and the sweets, snacks and drinks offer a glimpse of a diverse and maturing marketplace on the horizon — one rife with concerns for consumers and regulators.

Statewide pot-supply shortages slowed edibles’ arrival, but manufacturers also were stifled, and frustrated, by emergency regulations from the state Liquor Control Board (LCB), which has taken a cautious approach to opening the marketplace.

So far, the LCB has given its blessing to products — including chocolate bars, sodas and energy shots — from three new businesses.

Nine more kitchens have been approved by the Washington Department of Agriculture, but the LCB hasn’t yet signed off on their products.

Although eager entrepreneurs have bemoaned the LCB’s pace, Washington has benefited from watching Colorado deal with unexpected concerns and high demand for edibles. It also avoided national scrutiny after media seized on cautionary tales about edibles. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd visited Colorado, ate marijuana candy, and wrote that it left her in an eight-hour “hallucinatory state” in which she was “panting and paranoid.”

The stories pushed regulators in both Colorado and Washington to tighten the market, put an emphasis on education and, in many ways, protect consumers from themselves.

Candy, snacks, soda

Making edibles at commercial scale requires a touch of science and a dash of culinary skill.

With the state’s pot supply limited, edibles processors do have one advantage: They can use other pot growers’ trim, or waste clippings, as their base to make THC-laden oil or cooking fat.

“You can get a high-quality perceived product from essentially scraps,” said Jim Chaney, who has been making edibles for medical patients since 2011.

From there, processors can be creative. Take, for example, the first three to have edibles approved:

After furtive discussions around their family’s Thanksgiving table in 2012, Patrick, Dan and Michael Devlin started Db³. The brothers’ company became the state’s first licensed edibles processor. In January, the trio started setting up shop in a 25,000-square-foot Sodo warehouse.

The brothers will soon launch Zoots, their line of marijuana-infused drops and candies.

Industrial food-processing machines will churn out three products initially: drink additives that combine THC with substances like green coffee-bean extract or chamomile; energy shots that have a similar appearance to 5-Hour Energy drinks; and “chili cinnamon fire” candies packaged in what looks like an Altoids tin.

The Devlins converted their warehouse, which had been processing chicken salad, into an edibles assembly line and spent months developing their products, then testing them with focus groups. By the end of the month, they expect to have 24 employees.

They see Zoots as a future “signature Seattle brand.”

“From a business perspective, this is a very large market without a brand,” said Dan Devlin.

An hour north near Granite Falls, Green Chiefs has a former horse barn with a kitchen, a $125,000 carbon-dioxide processor named “Leviathan” and about 2,700 pot plants inside.

With walls constructed of corrugated metal lining the barn’s frame, Green Chiefs built a commercial kitchen to produce snacks ranging from Parmesan garlic pita chips to peanut brittle.

Instead of convening focus groups, Green Chiefs pushed out small batches of confectionery items like truffles and brownie brittle and is tracking sales and price margins, said Demetri Huffman, a consultant with the company.

Although state-licensed retail stores priced their high-potency chocolate bars with about 55 milligrams of THC between $70 to $100, Huffman said Green Chiefs did not profit from its first batch, which also included other kinds of edibles, because trim was expensive and their kitchen processes were not yet streamlined.

In Longview, in Southwest Washington, Mirth Provisions hopes its cannabis-infused sodas can compete with “a nice 22-ounce beer or a glass of pinot noir.” Founder Adam Stites said the company “can push about 8,000 bottles a day.” Soon, Stites hopes to bring cold-brew cannabis coffee to shelves.

For now, though, Mirth Provisions offers three soda flavors. Rainier Cherry, infused with a sativa strain, contains about 20 milligrams of THC.

Stites said he decided to pursue pot-infused beverages because he believes they’ll have a bigger consumer base than traditional bud.

“Regardless of what socioeconomic group you’re in, drinking is a socially acceptable way to recreate,” said Stites. “We said, why not make it a single serving for when you’re out barbecuing?”

Inconsistency

All three companies project a wide base for their market, something an initial study of Colorado’s market seems to support.

“(Edibles have) been a lot more popular than we thought this year,” said Adam Orens of BBC Research, who helped research the market for the state. “It has that appeal for casual users — an easy way to consume marijuana.”

In Colorado, the researchers estimated, tourists account for about 44 percent of recreational marijuana sales in metro areas, and about 90 percent in heavily visited mountain communities.

Novice pot users having bad, or even tragic, experiences with Colorado edibles made headlines nationwide and piqued Washington regulators’ attention in the process.

In June, Dowd wrote about her experience with edibles, and the story went viral. Three months earlier, a 19-year-old Wyoming student had jumped from a balcony and died after eating more than six times the recommended serving of marijuana cookies.

In response, regulators and industry leaders in both states crafted restrictions on the edibles marketplace and put new emphasis on education.

Most concerns stem from the newly pot-curious eating too much too fast because they don’t know better, said Meg Collins, executive director of Colorado’s Cannabis Business Alliance.

“Edibles seem like an easy, friendly way to get into marijuana,” Collins said. “It may taste like a yummy chocolate, but it’s still a drug and you need to be careful.”

Unlike smoking or vaping marijuana, eating pot can affect people quite differently and can produce a delayed high that kicks in hours later.

“They’re very inconsistent,” said Jessica Tonani, who researches marijuana and is CEO of Verda Bio, a small biotech firm in Seattle.

Tonani said body type, metabolism, genetic makeup and a person’s general tolerance can lead to very different effects.

Protecting children

Although Washington’s law was more restrictive than Colorado’s, that state’s struggles brought new attention. In June, the Washington LCB released emergency rules to tighten its control over the edibles market.

“There were reports coming out of Colorado that edibles were more tricky,” said Brian Smith, an LCB spokesman. “We had already established serving sizes and limits. We wanted to take it a step further.”

The rules require products be scored and labeled to indicate serving sizes, and homogenized so psychoactive chemicals are dispersed evenly throughout.

The LCB also restricted how manufacturers could preserve products. The rules don’t allow dairy products or anything that requires heating or cooling, among other constraints.

“We’re trying to keep this relatively young industry more on the side of safety with inherently low-risk products,” said Steve Fuller, a policy analyst for the state agriculture department. Some of those regulations might loosen in the future.

The LCB’s rules also allow it to reject any product or packaging it thinks would appeal to children. That means no gummy bears or cartoon animals.

The new rules left some prospective processors scrambling to adjust.

Chaney, the edible manufacturer for the medical industry, hoped to get licensed to sell a coffee product with coconut milk infused with marijuana. But the new rules meant the recipe he developed had been “gutted because I can’t use citric acid” as a preservative.

Stites, the soda maker, said he’s also developing coffee drinks, but they’re “on hold until the LCB provides more clarity on refrigeration and pasteurization.”

Stites said he believes the LCB wants licensees to be successful but the regulations are “not easy standards. They’re costly and complex.”

In Granite Falls, the LCB approved Green Chiefs’ cookies-and-cream bar.

After the company had sent some to market and was making more, the LCB changed its mind and rejected the product, saying the bars were too appealing to children, said manager Stesha Ries.

“Took away 40 percent of my frickin’ ability to produce,” Ries said. “Yeah. Slightly bitter.”

The LCB allowed the company to sell what had been made. Smith said the LCB plans to “bring some more clarity to the rules so those producers have a better inkling of what being especially appealing to children might mean.”

He said the LCB is simply trying to play it safe, and slow.

“It’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle,” he said. “This market is just emerging … it will likely adjust over time.”

Evan Bush: 206-464-2253 or ebush@seattletimes.com On Twitter @evanbush

 

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