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Drugs

How the US Weed Edibles Scene Compares to Canada

Canada is hungry for edibles while many US states are enjoying a tasty buzz.

by Manisha Krishnan and Randy Robinson
Dec 18 2018, 9:11pm

Photo illustration by Marvin Lau.

In this second installation of VICE Canada and MERRY JANE’s cross-border weed trend series via Sticky, we look at the state of edibles in North America’s legal weed zones.

The Canadian government has promised to legalize the sale of weed edibles no later than October 17, 2019—a year after recreational cannabis became legal. However, according to recent reports by Marijuana Business Daily and the Globe and Mail, the feds could release draft regulations concerning edibles in the next few weeks.

Once they are legal, edibles are expected to take up a huge chunk of the rec weed market. A Deloitte report from June found that six out of 10 consumers are expected to choose edible cannabis products. And big brands are already pouring money in the space. Constellation Brands, home of Corona beer, has invested $5 billion in licensed producer Canopy, while Molson Coors Canada is partnering with Quebec LP Hydropothecary Corporation to develop cannabis drinks.

What’s legal now in Canada?
Currently, it’s illegal to sell edibles, aside from cannabis oil. Sales of brownies, cookies, gummies and so on are all banned. However, you are allowed to make edibles at home, if you’re so inclined. You can also make extracts as long as you don’t use certain solvents.

What’s available illegally?
There is a thriving black market for weed edibles, and it goes beyond just baked goods. You can get anything from infused honey to tea and coffee to sodas. These products are available on online dispensaries and at underground pop-up markets, several of which exist in Toronto. There are also pop-up dining experiences—dinners where patrons can enjoy several courses of higher end, cannabis-infused meals—something that could prove to be a tourism draw once edibles are legal.

What can we expect from the regulations?
Based on the rollout for recreational weed, we can expect the government to proceed on edibles with caution. There are a lot of unknowns, but the federal task force on legalization, which submitted a thorough list of recommendations to the government in 2016, gives us some insight into how edibles might be regulated.

Unsurprisingly, many of the task force’s concerns centred on keeping edibles away from kids. As such, they recommended:

-banning products that are appealing to children i.e. candy
-prohibiting packaging that’s appealing to children. The rules around flower/oils are already very strict, requiring plain, opaque packaging and large health warnings—we can expect edibles packaging to continue that trend. Packaging will also likely to child-proof.
-limits on both THC per serving (e.g. 10 mg per brownie) with a cap on the total amount of THC per container
-strict testing requirements for potency and clear labelling on the amount of THC/CBD in the products
-a ban on “mixed products” such as alcoholic products mixed with THC

Facilities producing edibles will likely have to meet the standards set for existing LPs and meet food safety requirements.

Myth busting will remain key
The process of destigmatizing weed has been slow and steady, and there is still a lot of misinformation floating out around there, even from sources that should be trustworthy. As one example, earlier this year an emergency room doctor wrongly tweeted that weed edibles can kill children. VICE fact checked her, and she later deleted her tweets. Regulated edibles are new territory for Canada, so it will be important to remain vigilant in separating hysteria from reality.

Booming US market for edibles?
While Canada’s adult-use edibles market remains suspended in year-long limbo, several US states will have already sold hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of chewable, drinkable, slurpable cannabis.

In 2014, Colorado and Washington became the first two states to let anyone 21 years or older buy cannabis-infused edibles. Since then, eight additional states plus D.C. came online, all serving up THC-laden foodstuffs with slightly varying degrees of regulation. And best believe folks are gobbling it up.

According to the cannabis data firm BDS Analytics, edibles are the industry’s fastest growing segment alongside concentrates. Gummies have long led the pack in sales, but chocolate, tincture and pill sales recently spiked along the west coast. California, the nation’s largest weed market, saw 108 percent growth in edibles sales this year, jumping from $18 million in January to $37.5 million by August (USD).

Another data firm, the Brightfield Group, projects cannabis edibles will rake in $2.3 billion USD by the end of 2018. By 2020, America’s edibles may net $5.3 billion USD, putting the infused foodie sector on par with the K-pop and zombie industries. Or Richard Branson’s net worth.

Spoiled for choice
First, what’s available on America’s marijuana menus? US consumers can now snag a wide variety of foodstuffs loaded with cannabis extracts. There are weed chewing gums, pumpkin pies, pizza pies, beers, margaritas, and sports and energy drinks. There’s even weed beef jerky.

Although cannabis-infused candies, chocolates, wines and teas go back hundreds—if not thousands—of years, today’s edibles are arguably better, stronger—and some can kick in much faster, too. Novel products, like flavorless weed powders or liquid drops, are designed to infuse any dish imaginable, freeing dope diners from the sugary, fatty limitations of confection- or cookie-only options.

Medical marijuana patients in Arizona will be especially spoiled, as the Grand Canyon State will soon host the nation’s first cannabis take-out restaurant. Nevada could be next if its legislature greenlights social consumption spots like cannabis clubs or weedy eateries early next year.

Won’t someone think about the children?
Generally, edibles on the recreational markets are limited, by state laws, to 10 mg of THC per serving with a maximum of ten servings per package, or 100 mg THC altogether. The serving is equivalent to smoking a joint or a large bowl stuffed with weed. Medical edibles can go higher, but usually no higher than 20 to 30 mg THC per serving.

What made these limits happen? A combination of lightweights, novices, bad info, and highly publicized sensationalism.

Shortly after Colorado launched recreational weed sales, emergency rooms observed a sharp rise in the number of children and teens being admitted for overdosing on pot candies. Granted, none of these kids died. But with the figures quadrupling between 2005 to 2014, alarms sounded.

To be fair, it wasn’t just kids. Within the first year of legalization, authorities attributed two adult deaths to cannabis edibles. One death involved a 19-year-old African exchange student jumping (or tripping, depending on the account) from a hotel balcony after eating an entire 65 mg weed cookie. Another involved a suicidal Denver-area man shooting his wife because, as his attorneys argued, he ate too many weed candies at once.

The media didn’t help matters, either. In June 2014, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Maureen Dowd penned an op-ed at the New York Times recounting her hellish experience with Colorado’ edibles: she chased down several bites of a THC-infused chocolate bar with a bottle of wine, flipped out, then blamed the state’s lack of regulations on her lack of foresight.

How to keep a sky from falling
Andrew Livingston is the director of economics and research at Vicente-Sederberg, an international pot law firm based in Denver. Livingston helped shape Colorado’s rules for edibles prior to and after legalization, and he told VICE by phone that regulators tried their best to prevent debacles like Dowd’s. He largely attributed these horror stories to Colorado’s transition from a medical to a recreational market.

When Colorado “went rec,” many former medical marijuana dispensaries converted to recreational licenses. At the time, medical cannabis—including edibles—weren’t as tightly regulated as recreational products are. Converted pot shops could hock their old medical edibles on the adult-use market so long as those edibles contained no more than 100 mg THC per package. Single “servings” were ill-defined at the time, and many medical products were incredibly potent relative to their tiny, bite-sized packages. Imagine trying to split a miniature peanut butter cup into ten equal parts.

“Medical products were designed for medical patients, who have a much greater need for high-THC products,” Livingston said. “But regulators, business owners, and activists realized there needed to be potency limits” for the general public, as tourists and casual users would have much lower tolerances to THC than medical cannabis patients.

Where did the 10 mg cap come from? According to a 2013 report from the Amendment 64 Task Force, the limit was determined by compiling several scientific studies, anecdotal reports, and consultations from medical doctors.

At 10 mg, the average adult will fully feel the positive effects of THC (giggles, munchies) with minimal adverse effects (paranoia, dizziness). The upper limit for this range is 20 mg, but that can be too much for some people, especially rookies. The lower limit is 5 mg, but too little THC carries an additional caution Livingston called “stacking.” Stacking is when someone eats an edible but doesn’t feel anything right away, so they eat more edibles to compensate for the lack of high. Often, these nibblers will underestimate how much THC they’ve ingested and end up tripping balls like Maureen Dowd did in 2014.

The regulatory slap-down didn’t end with just dosing for edibles.

Edible shapes and designs that could appeal to children, like gummy bears, were banned in 2015. Infused foods would also require an edible diamond stamp labeled with bold letters spelling out “THC.” Package labels warned users that the edible products were not for children as well. Some companies implemented child-proof mechanisms that are so tricky to unlock they’re nearly adult-proof as well. By mid-2016, the new regulations went into full effect. So far, they appear to be working.

Other states such as Washington and Oregon soon followed Colorado’s lead. In fact, Oregon took it a step further and capped edible servings at 5 mg THC. This year, Washington state almost banned cannabis gummies altogether but scrapped the ban at the last minute.

What does the future hold for US edibles?
Worrying over edibles aside, business is booming, and technological advancements are soaring at supersonic speeds.

For one, cannabis edibles are rarely made with butter, once the key ingredient in infused foods. Bud butter may work wonders in the home kitchen, but it usually creates edibles with inconsistent dosing. One half of a brownie may hold more THC than the other half, which is no good in an industry beholden to stringent lab testing requirements and state regulations.

To craft edibles with homogenous dosing across every batch, the industry switched from butter to hydrocarbon or carbon dioxide extracts. In the concentrates market, these extracts are known as “wax” or “shatter” hashes which can reach up to 90 percent THC by weight. Because the extracts are relatively pure, they can be reliably dosed into single servings.

Furthermore, a new generation of edibles are water-soluble. Earlier versions of infused drinks like sodas, coffees and teas were made with heat-activated kief or hashish, which led to cloudy mixtures and gunky buildups. Newer recipes employ emulsified cannabis powders (THC bonded with starch) or sonication (THC broken up into microscopic particles with sound waves) to dissolve the weed in water, something unheard of just a few years ago.

Water-soluble THC confers a few major benefits over edibles made with oils. Emulsified THC is absorbed through the body’s carbohydrate channels, which are present in the mouth’s mucous lining. Because starch molecules carry the THC, the weed absorbs directly into the bloodstream and bypasses the digestive system. Drinks, drops, sublingual films and powders designed this way will get someone high within five to ten minutes, leagues faster than traditional edibles. Quicker onsets mean less chance of stacking doses and overdoing it.

We may also see edibles marketed for their flavonoid content. Flavonoids are another class of chemicals in cannabis that may be responsible for the different kinds of highs consumers experience.

Regardless, given the rapidly expanding size of the market coupled with the blitzkrieg progress of legalization, it’s safe to say edibles are here to stay. Bon appétit, stoners.

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