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Beyond the Brownie: The State of Marijuana Edibles in America

The sale of marijuana edibles now accounts for roughly half of the $5.4 billion cannabis industry. This got us here at MUNCHIES thinking: Have edibles jumped the shark?
Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

Vegan, gluten-free, sriracha-flavored cannabis kale chips, anyone? Or can we tempt you with some cannabis ceviche? Perhaps you'd prefer to go straight to the medicated curried chicken salad made with paleo 420 mayo?

The sale of marijuana edibles now accounts for roughly half of the $5.4 billion cannabis industry. Many who consume cannabis for its medical benefits prefer it in a palatable form. And for recreational users, edibles are a win-win situation: ingesting weed in food form can produce an intense body high—thanks to THC absorption in your liver—and one that lasts longer than from smoking. Trading off smoke or vapor for a few calories seems like a no-brainer—after all, everyone's gotta eat.

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And perhaps it's no wonder that edibles have lately become a favorite subject of articles, contests, and cookbooks that extol the wackiest weed-infused food you never knew you needed to eat. But does the world really need reef jerky or medicated pizza sauce?

All of this got us here at MUNCHIES thinking: Have edibles jumped the shark? Has it all gone too far? Have we reached peak edibles?

Of course, there's a pretty large distinction between patients who use medicated edibles to ease their symptoms and people who use them recreationally. Then there are those who prefer packaged products and those who want to introduce cannabis into their own cooking. What about restaurants and private clubs? What about the regulatory and legislative web in which cannabis lies? After all, marijuana is only legal, in one form or another, in fewer than half of the states. Like everything else in the weed world today, answers are complicated and people in the business have strong opinions.

But everyone I spoke to seemed to agree on this: Edibles have not peaked, but the reasons for this are complex and reveal more about the state of weed legalization at the end of the first quarter of 2016 than they do about people's taste for medicated salad dressings.

In my search for clarity, my first stop was to catch up with our own weed columnist and former High Times West Coast editor David Bienenstock. He told me, "I personally think we're far from peak edibles," he told me. "Most of the country and the vast majority of the world still has little to no access to professionally produced and packaged edibles. So while the media may be saturated with stories on exotic and high-end edibles, the reality for most people is that they haven't had a chance to sample much other than what they make themselves at home."

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Almost all of the experts I spoke with pointed to this distinction: While people who regularly cook and have a real interest in food will seek out the cookbooks, tastings, and exotic packaged edibles that are available, most people—even those with access to the commercial edibles market—see a much smaller range of products for sale.

Jessica LeRoux—a.k.a. The Cheesecake Lady—of Twirling Hippie Confections in Colorado is not pleased with how things are going in the Colorado edibles community. In fact, she sold her manufacturing license several years ago, retaining just the rights to her name and recipes.

Betty's Eddies chews

Lime and spinach candy. Courtesy of Betty's Eddies

"From a commercial perspective, we've only really scraped the bottom of the barrel," LeRoux said. But if you think that sounds like a positive message, think again. The problems in the edibles business are multifarious, according to LeRoux. She believes that Colorado regulations dictating that edibles must contain no more than 10 milligrams of activated THC unfairly restrain manufacturers. "You can get diabetes before you get high," she told me.

Even worse is the narrow profit margins that are an inherent part of the business. "Edibles are in every way the red-headed stepchild of the industry—they're extremely popular, but they aren't really profitable to produce," Le Roux said. "The edibles manufacturers that have survived here are the ones that are making products out of low quality, really cheap ingredients. You're not seeing the niche for products made with really good-quality ingredients."

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LeRoux says that probably the most popular edible in Colorado is "also the most disgusting." Big manufacturers take pre-made Chinese candy and spray it with BHO, or butane hash oil. "[They] say, 'We're done, problem solved, we've made edibles.' It's embarrassing, but that's what the marketplace in Colorado provides to consumers. There is almost nothing that you can get that doesn't have toxic ingredients, and the way the market is stacked in Colorado, it really promotes products with a long, long shelf life."

Ryan Crandall and Timothy Shaw of Betty's Eddies are much newer to the edibles community than LeRoux, having gotten into the business in 2012. They produce all-natural fruit chews made from locally grown fruits and vegetables.

"We look at the space as still blossoming," Crandall told me. He believes people will be smoking less cannabis and eating more of it in the future. "I kind of looked at Betty's Eddies as a way to make better food. Edibles are easier to consume than flower and they are thriving in the states where they are legal." Like LeRoux, his main challenge in the edibles business is regulatory and commercial difficulties.

Plaguing these businesses is the fear among politicians and the prohibition community that kids will start getting into edibles, and the belief that it's just weed is still just some hippie habit. Shaw told me, "'Reefer Madness is really embedded in people's minds, and bringing a sense of normalcy to the product, like putting it into salad dressing, could help shift perspectives."

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Angel Teger, of Ruby Doobie in Los Angeles, agrees. Teger is a self-described "cannabis activist, entrepreneur, and chef." She believes the laws and regulations regarding edibles will have to settle down before the industry even reaches a mature state. "I can only speak for my experience in Los Angeles—I don't think the edibles industry here is expanding too rapidly," she said. "I think it's actually more the opposite. Without regulations in place, it is difficult for any edible maker, and the industry as a whole, to grow. Operators are at risk of being raided, having assets frozen and inventory confiscated. Mo other industry has to deal with this kind of environment."

Ruby Doobie cookie package

Courtesy of Ruby Doobie

But surely Los Angeles—home to Gwyneth's $185 breakfast smoothie—must see a lot of over-the-top edibles, right?

"The media tends to spotlight the 'way-out products' and imply that the edibles industry is huge for the sensational story," Teger said. "I believe the reality is the edibles market, at least here in Los Angeles, is made up primarily of small operators who are business-savvy, creative, and produce top-notch products."

She adds: "It's my personal hope that Los Angeles will encourage diversity within the industry—providing a path for cottage industry and small business operators to thrive and succeed."

People may be cooking weed-infused boeuf bourguignon in the privacy of their own homes, and they may be reading articles about paleo cannabis jerky and even purchasing it in small quantities. But have edibles peaked? No way in hell. The industry is too immature, the laws are too unclear, and the stigma against pot—especially in edible form—still persists.