Doobie, aunt mary, skunk, ganja, grass – whatever you call it, marijuana is in the news. Historically classified by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) as a Schedule 1 narcotic, the herb has recently been legalized for both medical and recreational use in the state of California and beyond, and the discussion around its use and potential benefits is flooding mainstream dialogue.(1) No longer regarded as the quintessential hippie, drop-out drug of the pot-smoking sixties, the iconic cannabis plant with its ultra-recognizable seven-pointed leaf is enjoying a rebirth as a plant with a bright new future. And the future is neither smoke nor mirrors – this future is edible.
In a total of eight states – California, Washington, Colorado, Oregon, Alaska, Nevada, Massachusetts, and Maine – and the District of Columbia cannabis is available, regulated, and taxed. Although the exact provisions vary from state to state, voter initiatives between 2012 and 2016 led to the legalization of the drug for adult recreational use, permitting the home cultivation of between four and six plants, the possession and transportation of the dried herb for personal use, the regulation of manufacturing and testing facilities, the creation of retail stores, the licensing of cannabis clubs, and, in the state of Massachusetts, the creation of a Cannabis Control Commission.(2) And although most people think they know about the drug, common misperceptions abound, viz the idea that all cannabis is the same. Let’s take a moment to look a little more closely at this often misunderstood plant.
Within the world of recreational and medicinal use, there are two strains of cannabis: sativa and indica, with ‘hybrid’ forming a third option. Indica is the variety most people imagine – the leaf that unwinds and sedates, giving users a calm full-body relaxation. Believed to have originally come from the Hindu Kush region near Afganistan, Cannabis indica is a stocky, bushy plant that can be grown in an indoor environment. With a short flowering time, it is a robust herb that produces a thicker resin than its more temperate Sativa cousin and is considered optimal for the relief of anxiety, muscle spasms, pain, and insomnia. Cannabis sativa, by contrast, is a thin, leggy plant with a more moderate yield that is ideally suited to outdoor cultivation. Growing in equatorial areas, its effects tend to be uplifting and energizing, making it more suitable for use with mood disorders, depression, chronic fatigue, or ADD.
And in both cases the chemistry of cannabis is intriguing. Its two active compounds – known as cannabinoids – are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), which are molecular structures with their own unique properties and purported medical benefits. In addition to the cannabinoids are terpenes – a group of aromatic oils that serve to modulate the cannabinoids’ effects. So with all of that in mind, how does a user choose one strain over another, let alone navigate the maze of potential differences in phenotype – the physical expression of the genotype as defined by the plant’s growing environment? We’re glad you asked. Aside from talking with experts, sifting through sometimes contradictory information online, or even investing in a smartphone app such as Leafly (the ‘Yelp for weed’) or High There! (the ‘Tinder for Tokers’), there are increasing mainstream sources to consult.(3) Let’s consider the Food Network’s Tyler Florence.
Wait! Tyler Florence? Celebrity chef, author, and host of such family favorites as Food 911 and How To Boil Water, and – via the Sandwich Smackdown – friend of Oprah Winfrey? Yes, the very same. Currently a board member in the food delivery subscription service Sun Basket, Florence is also a fan of cannabis edibles, going on record as enjoying a dose of indica-laced chocolate in preference to wine after a long day in the studio or kitchen. And amongst the elixirs, gummies, mints, and tarts available in stores, cannabis-infused chocolate is one of the most popular varieties of the new generation of edibles. Out are the shady stoner vans and in are the cleanly-welcoming dispensaries and pharmacies selling edible treats for consumers such as Florence to enjoy in place of other socially-approved stimulants or relaxants. And in terms of his preferred chocolate treat, Florence seems to have tapped into a popular trend. According to both culinary experts and scientists, the marriage of chocolate and cannabis is ideal given that both substances share a common cousin – THC and anandamide.(4) In chemical terms, anandamide – a lipid found in chocolate and naturally produced in the brain – is almost identical to THC and is thought to delay the breakdown of THC, thereby prolonging its effects. In other words, pairing cannabis with chocolate allows for a longer, more sustained experience of the drug.
And chef Tyler Florence is not the only culinary name to embrace the weed. Ever heard of Jeff the 420 Chef? Based in Los Angeles, CA, Jeff is the host of a popular podcast and internet show, and the author of cookbooks aimed at the home chef with an interest in dipping a toe into the world of medicinal edibles. By demonstrating how to craft ‘cannabutter’ – dairy butter infused with THC – in your own home kitchen and whipping up a cannabis-infused veggie burger to throw on the grill, Chef Jeff has been dubbed ‘The Julia Child of Weed’ by The Daily Beast and ‘The King of Edibles’ by Elite Daily.(5) And he’s tapping into what could potentially be called a wave. With a high level of care and a good understanding of the intersection of mathematics and the culinary arts, the average amateur cook can, by and large, manage micro-dosing, making the creation of cannabis edibles almost a cottage industry. For good or ill. Which is why, when it comes to commercially available products, it might indeed be fortunate that the cannabis edibles industry is in a strong position to control quality, allowing consumers to understand and regulate self-dosing. From packaging to labeling, demarcation of segments and stamping, commercial edibles are more user-friendly and safer than ever, as we’ll see shortly. But this was not always the case.
In 2000, Derek Cummings invested in a batch of cannabis-laced brownies from a Denver dispensary. Desperate to lessen his dependence upon pharmaceutical options for severe and on-going pain, Cumings leveraged his crushing disappointment with the newly legalized edibles that did little to help and worked to become a director of Medically Correct, now Colorado’s largest producer of cannabis-infused foods. Moving from targeting the baked goods which had let him down so badly, he set his sights upon chocolate due to its ease of dosing and more durable shelf life, focusing upon finding ways to ensure correct and consistent micro-dosing to gain specific results. Around the same time, Andrew Schrot launched Blue Kudu, a company that created a popular line of chocolate rolls laced with THC. Although few players in the field were then interested in crafting products with specified and dependable doses, both Cumings and Schrot saw the potential in bucking the trend. While Colorado House Bill 1284 enacted in 2010 set up the Marijuana Enforcement Division, micro-dosing of products in pharmacies and dispensaries was still largely unregulated, leading to much media attention being thrown on isolated cases of overdose experiences. By 2014, however, the Marijuana Inventory Tracking System (MITS) had been established to follow not only individual cannabis plants (with an eye to removing them from the clutches of black market purveyors) but to track potential contaminants such as salmonella or pesticides. And it played a critical role in establishing the general baseline of 10mg as a standard dose of THC. The ‘Start low and go slow’ campaign was aimed at those new to edibles and, post 2014, all peripheral materials – packaging, labeling, molds, stencils, and stamps – were required to demystify dosage recommendations.
But consistent and accurate micro-dosing is not the whole picture. As we’re aware from other articles in this series, federal law mandates a raft of regulation in order to safeguard consumers from potential contamination in the manufacturing process of food products – whether they are full, nutritionally-balanced meals or a child’s simple chocolate treat. Take, for instance, the swift and efficient recall of products with undeclared barley – Lindt & Sprungli Ltd’s Excellence Extra Dark Fine Egg Shell and Lindor Strawberries & Cream Shell Egg(6) – and the Palmer Candy Company’s recall of a total of 22 separate UPCs due to potential salmonella contamination.(7) But although the guidelines for contamination-based candy recalls are clear, regulatory restrictions for issues with cannabis edibles are not quite as comprehensive or carefully considered. And this is a problem not only for consumers but also for the companies trying to capture them. In a statement last year, GB Science’s Quality Manager David Rabinowitz noted that federal agencies ‘lack the drive to create policy based on scientific evidence,’ exhorting the industry to pick up the slack itself. ‘As GB Sciences begins its vertically integrated venture into the medical world of cannabis, we will implement cGMP quality control checks and processes. [… Our commitment to quality] will be ensured by the Quality Management Team through physical and paper audits […and] critical quality control points such as room temperature and humidity will be created and enforced.’(8) In other words, in leading by example GB Sciences hoped to encourage other enterprises to follow not only current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMPs) but also strict adherence to Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCPs).
And it might be this ethical business stance (if that is not an oxymoron) that has other companies keen to partner with GB Sciences. In a new venture, Kush Cups, an Arizona-based company, has joined with the cannabis cultivator to bring Keurig-compatible cannabis-infused coffee cups to mass market. And part of the attraction is not only the corporate ethos but also the heavy investment in state-of-the-art, medical-grade cleanroom technology. Marrying ‘cutting edge cannabis cultivation and biopharmaceutical research and development,’ the Nevada-based GB Sciences boasts dedicated cleanrooms that house a suite of cultivation labs to control propagation, growing, and curing of cannabis plants to produce absolutely consistent strains and standards.(9) Product purity is controlled by isolating specific compounds via three different methods: CO2 extraction, winterization, and molecular distillation. Carbon dioxide is a popular tool in extraction as it is easy to acquire, non-combustible, and Generally Regarded As Safe (GRAS) for food-related usage. It’s used in a closed-loop system that strips the raw plant material of the THC and CBD before concentrating them into a thickened oil. In winterization, USP Grade 200 Proof ethanol is used to strip sterols or waxes from the useful compounds, and the resulting oil and ethanol mix is cryogenically frozen to promote separation prior to micron filtration which removes residue. Vapor pressure is used in the closed-loop environment necessary for the molecular distillation process in which cannabis oil is separated on a molecular level into its more than four hundred individual compounds.
And GB Sciences is just one company leveraging these kinds of cleanroom technologies in pursuit of purity and consistency in cannabis edibles. Remember Derek Cumings, the pain sufferer who went on to become director at Medically Correct? His company now boasts a 10,000 square foot production facility in west Denver which incorporates a closed-loop butane extractor in the nation’s first Class 1 Division 1 ETL-certified lab.(10) The extractor is used to distil and isolate cannabinoids and terpenes for incorporation into a range of chocolate bars for companies such as Blue Kudu which purchases Fair-Trade-certified artisanal chocolate for its 45,000 chocolate bars per month production run.(11) And then there’s Kiva Confections, a California-based enterprise that is now ‘one of the most recognized medical cannabis companies’ in that state.(12) In association with analytics labs, Kiva founders Scott Palmer and Kristi Knoblich worked to create a mission statement for their company that included a firm commitment to ‘efficacy, food safety, and business integrity’ in producing lines of edibles of tested and certified potency, user-friendly packaging, and – allegedly – a good flavor.(13) So good, in fact that they have won the title of ‘Best Edible’ at both the San Francisco and Los Angeles High Times Cannabis Cup for 2013.
And then there are the niche markets. Even if accurately measured and safely manufactured, most edibles take between 30 minutes to an hour (sometimes more) to take effect because the active ingredients are broken down within the large intestine. But 1906, an artisanal company with products available only in Colorado, specializes in crafting exquisite, gem-like chocolates from an alchemical mix of cacoa, cannabis, and ‘ethnobotanical ingredients’ in which the active compounds are coated to protect them. These quick-acting, low-dose confections use a molecular coating of encapsulating lipids on the THC and CBD content to facilitate their more efficient passage into the bloodstream, providing faster results and ‘an elevated cannabis experience.’(14) And as with their competitors, 1906 focuses on the use of chocolates as a delivery mechanism because the treat is ‘universally loved.’(15)
If the present is anything to go by, it looks prosperous indeed. In Colorado alone, the market is worth a whopping $120 million – this figure representing a 37% increase over 2014. And as the industry matures, offering an increased product line to cater to consumers’ diverse tastes and needs – this taxable revenue can only continue to increase accordingly. And, despite the naysayers, with growing public acceptance of cannabis as a medical tool and a recreational pleasure, it might be that we soon equate the use of weed with that other plant-based mood enhancer – alcohol. And to promote safe and responsible enjoyment perhaps we just need to apply a measure of common sense. Just as we do not allow minors access to alcohol, we must keep edibles away from children. In the same way in which we do not drive impaired by wine, we should catch an Uber home if we’ve indulged in pot snacks. And just as we never spike the drinks of unsuspecting friends, we must be responsible enough to refrain from disguising infused foods. And with those sorts of precautions in place, those who chose to enjoy cannabis edibles may do so safely.
Are you happy to live in a state where cannabis edibles are legal? Or are you strongly against the use of marijuana? Whichever side of the fence you are on, we’d love to hear your thoughts!