On New Year’s Day, California began a bold new era by opening the state’s cannabis retail stores to any adult over 21, with or without a note from their doctor. But amid all the ribbon cuttings and heady celebrations was a surprising downside for many of the state’s most innovative edibles makers and products. Tighter restrictions on ingredient options and THC dosage levels, more stringent standards for packaging and lab-testing, or conflicts with the Food and Drug Administration have led to to hundreds of small mom-and-pop manufacturers closing up shop or returning to the underground.
Having eaten a lot of weird weed food— including potato chips, cotton candy, pizza sauce, salsa, and nacho cheese—since 2010 in my former role as a judge for the High Times Cannabis Cup, it’s sad but not unprecedented to see novel packaged goods disappearing from the shelves of licensed dispensaries, replaced by yet more cookies, candies, and chocolate.
The regulatory changes put forth by the Bureau of Cannabis Control and the Department of Public Heath address every aspect of the cannabis edibles business, from product design and commercial production to branding, advertising and marketing, with strict new requirements for child-resistant packaging. Coming into compliance with these regulations, securing a commercial kitchen and attaining the necessary licenses is an incredibly expensive endeavor, effectively pricing out many cottage industry producers of weird, small-batch edibles.
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Gone, as a result, are the parodies of mainstream candy brands, homemade cereal bars wrapped in plastic, amateur packaging, and labeling riddled with typos. No more cartoon branding that could be attractive to children, no more use of the word “candy” on labeling, and no more gummies shaped like humans, animals, or fruit.
This same situation unfolded in Colorado after the state embraced adult-use cannabis in 2014, driving consolidation of the edibles market to the point where it is now dominated by only a few dozen companies. According to the data analysis firm BDS Analytics, “In the relatively mature Colorado market, there are now hundreds of branded products on shelves. The top five brands accounted for nearly half of all edible sales, the top 10 brands for more than two-thirds, and the top 20 for almost 90 percent.”
Ten Milligrams of THC is a Dose
In the name of public health and safety—especially after several tragedies in Colorado—high-dose products have been eliminated. Hoping to keep people from going off the psychedelic deep end, California edibles are now required to have doses marked in 10-milligram increments, and are limited to 100 mg of THC total per package. While medical patients can still access edibles with higher doses, most will be gravitating towards tinctures and capsules that are allowed to contain up to 1000 mg of THC per package rather than stuffing themselves with more chocolate and baked goods.
In response, Cali’s kings of “unrivaled potency,” Korova edibles, have radically re-tooled their product line to feature lower-dose cookies instead of insanely strong brownies, but not before cranking out 60,000 packages of 1000-milligram Black Bars just before the end of 2017 in order to take advantage of a legal loophole allowing dispensaries to sell previously made, non-compliant products through July.
The new rules have already forced established industry leaders Auntie Dolores to discontinue their entire edibles product line, which was composed of bulk items like savory nuts, crackers, and vegan sweets that can’t easily be divided into simple serving sizes of 10 milligrams of THC each. Asked via email about her decision to stop making these products, founder Julianna Carella wrote, “We have been committed to offering gourmet edibles, and unfortunately the current regulations mean everything about our product line would have to change. The products that are allowed and can easily comply with these regulations are chocolates and candies, both of which we have no desire, skill or equipment to make!”
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Cutting-edge edibles maker THCheese also put their business plan on hold indefinitely, since state regulations forbid infusing THC into any dairy or meat ingredients: That type of production would have to be overseen by the FDA, which can’t happen since cannabis is still federally illegal. The team behind THCheese became aware that their artisanal cannabis-infused cheeses wouldn’t be able to comply when a draft of the regulations was released last summer.
“When I first realized that our venture wasn't going to work, it crushed me,” Matthew Gill of THCheese told MUNCHIES. “We made farm-to-table edibles with a focus on fermentation, showcasing the agricultural side of food and cannabis. These types of products were viewed as dangerous [by regulators] due to their perishability and the risk of food-borne pathogens.”
Additional new restrictions forbid retailing frozen items, eliminating cannabis ice creams and microwavable meals altogether, as well as MaGooch’s award-winning chicken empanadas and Big Pete’s “Take & Bake” cannabis cookies. Plus, no legal edibles can be mixed with alcohol or additional caffeine, preventing a THC-infused version of Four Loko from ever coming into existence.
Of course, if you’re interested in sidestepping all of the rules and making your own edibles at home, that’s still legal. Just be advised that adults in California can legally possess up to an ounce of cannabis, which they can infuse into any kind of food that they want, so long as no money changes hands and everyone’s over 21.