By Evan Bush, The Seattle Times
SEATTLE — Marijuana-infused edibles began trickling to store shelves in Washington state 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 the 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.
Making edibles a 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 the 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, they started setting up shop in a 25,000-square-foot warehouse in the SoDo neighborhood.
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 camomile; 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,” Dan Devlin said.
— 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 such snacks as Parmesan garlic pita chips and 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?”
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 experiences with Colorado edibles 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 imposed 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.
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 products.
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.
AFP Photo/Desiree Martin
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