National Geographic: U.S. Marijuana Edibles, One Year In: State of the Infusion

Posted on July 07, 2015

by Mary Beth Albright

Food infused with marijuana is having a moment, with increasing interest from Generation Next to Baby Boomers. Although eating marijuana to produce serene “high” feelings is millennia old, marijuana “edibles” as they are known are back in vogue, with 23 states legalizing pot for medicinal purposes and four with recreational legalization.

And then there is Washington, D.C, where last month, the nation’s capital quietly permitted the first kitchen to specifically produce marijuana edibles. The first products from the kitchen, a cold-pressed juice called “More…”, should hit medical marijuana dispensaries in August. More on that in a minute.

First let’s go to Washington state, where recreational sale of marijuana was first allowed one year ago on July 8, 2014. Much ink has been spilled over “ganjapreneurs” looking to make a fortune off of the new Gold Rush and customers clamoring for a taste of legal THC, a psychoactive compound in cannabis—from pot store operators (with daily menus offering dozens of types of pot producing different highs and coffee beans laced with THC) to pot sommeliers.

Then there are the businesspeople, the ones who don’t giggle or use slang when discussing the burgeoning, nascent, and highly vulnerable edible marijuana industry. These are the ones who will likely bring it from underground market to accepted, responsible player, because they understand that the biggest challenge—and what the public and the regulators want them to do—is to create products that are safe, consistent, and reliable.

Db3, Washington state’s largest manufacturer of edibles, was founded by three brothers who run the daily operation with their staff of about 30. Dan, Michael, and Patrick Devlin came from business and food service backgrounds and saw Washington state’s legalization as an opening to create a highly responsible company wit a consistent product. They did smart things like creating a production line by purchasing a contact lens bottling machine at auction.

To prevent Lucy-in-the-chocolate-factory-moments on the line, they hired several people who worked with Michael when he was a vice president atSahale Snacks, people who knew about creating consistent, quality product on a larger scale. They experimented with and eventually patented a method to extract THC from cannabis—a critical component of making edibles, because extraction determines both the final flavor of the food and how potent it will be, two elements that must be consistent to make a reliable, socially responsible product.

“To get really good at infused food, you can’t have a cruddy essence of marijuana,” notes Michael. “We realized that making good extract would be the inflection point in the industry. So we hired a chemist, conducted trials of new methods, tested with commercial labs and got good quantitative data.” Under the Zoots brand, Db3 uses strong flavors like yerba mate, lemongrass, and espresso to mask residual flavors of marijuana. As Nancy Coltom, the lead product developer explained, “they are strong flavors, but adult flavors—that is very important to us.” She’s referring to the often-made criticism of edibles that they will attract children’s consumption.

Photograph by Mary Beth Albright

The line at Db3, Washington state’s biggest edible manufacturer. Photograph by Mary Beth Albright

Currently, Db3 has an extensive marijuana growing operation, with a third of their facility dedicated to plants—one room alone contains 2,400 plants, flowering with buds containing THC. As the industry grows nationwide and business can be done across state lines, the Devlins see marijuana-growing becoming more of a specialty and bulk marijuana becoming a commodity ingredient for food manufacturing.

Zoots mostly focuses on products with lower doses of THC and appeals to the social cannabis consumer, who Db3 compares to a social drinker having a glass of wine—not someone who wants to sit stoned on the couch all day. “People can measure out a small amount of THC, wait to see how it affects them, and eat more if they like. It takes different amounts of time for eating to affect people,” says Patrick. “Perhaps you’re a professional with a family who doesn’t want to feel a psychoactive effect, you just want to feel not so uptight when you go out for an evening.”

But the public is also looking for safety—edibles have gotten off to a shaky start. “Food can be far more consistent in dosage than smoking—if you’re smoking, you can’t control how much you take in,” says Michael. Every product in Washington must be clearly labeled with serving sizes and THC content.

Three thousand miles away in Washington, D.C., District Growers received the first commercial kitchen permit last month for a kitchen that will be used specifically to produce marijuana-infused food. In August, District Growers, a marijuana growing business, will launch a line of cold-pressed gluten-free, dairy-free juices containing cannabinoids, the active compounds in marijuana. The “More…” juice will come in five types—Smiles, Bliss, Passion, Serenity, and Freedom.

In development: THC-laced fillings to be piped onto pre-made bakery items onsite. (The permitting is for a cold kitchen only, so District Growers can’t bake or cook its own items yet.)

Although recreational marijuana use is legal in D.C., only those with a D.C.-issued medical marijuana card can purchase District Grower’s juices. (No money can exchange hands over recreational pot in D.C.—it’s complicated. See Sniffing Out What’s Edible, Legal in Marijuana Dining.) But many in the medical industry, in D.C. and nationwide, have an eye toward a time when recreational commerce will be big business.

“The ideal recreational experience would be like the medical experience.” Says Corey Barnette, District Growers’ founder: “Whether you’re experienced or first coming in, you should hear the expected effects of the plant, the testing profile, and have a conversation about its use. There shouldn’t be an intrinsic assumption that someone wants to get the most high. A lot of people behind the counter [in recreational purchases] aren’t trained to have that conversation and just want to talk about sports or politics. It should be similar to any other retail experience—let’s talk about the product, and then we can get to relationship building.”

(For more on the medical use of marijuana, see our video team’s documentary, Cannabis for Kids: The Children Behind the Debate.)

When asked about the long-term future of the edibles business, both the Devlins and Barnette are optimistic about an eventual lift on the national federal cannabis ban, which is preventing any state-to-state sales and could shut down all marijuana business at any time. “All of the social indicators are going well in states with legal recreational markets,” says Barnette. On a pragmatic level, says Devlin: “There’s too much of a momentum going, and there’s too much potential revenue the government can tax.”