This article originally appeared on VICE US.
When Chris Barrett started to grow weed in California several years ago, he found out it wasn’t for him. But it wasn’t the growing that he didn’t like—it was the isolation.
The 45-year-old was, however, inspired by the cannabis community he met there, primarily the experiences he had at the infused dinners he attended. When he returned to New York he started putting together similar high-end infused dinners; think multiple courses of lobster and steak.
There was one problem, however: His customers would get hungry after dinner was served.
“The chef would stop cooking at midnight, but the party would go to 4 AM,” Barrett told me in a phone conversation. “Around two o’clock, everyone’s high again, a bit hungry. They don’t want steak or lobster but they want something.”
So the lifelong businessman did what any other entrepreneur would do: He gave the people what they wanted. He started making infused pizza, and after receiving feedback from customers that they would be willing to pay $50 plus delivery for Barrett’s creations, he decided to dedicate his time to pizza. Thus, Stoned Pizza was born.
Stoned Pizza is exactly what it says it is. The shop offers the standard spread of your average New York pizzeria, from garlic knots to chicken wings to desserts. All of it is infused, and to a novice edible consumer the potency is no joke: 340 milligrams per pizza, or 40 milligrams a slice. For reference, in California, ten milligrams of THC equals one serving.
Anyone who adheres to New York’s current cannabis laws may balk at Stoned Pizza’s existence—with good reason. While New York is considered a liberal state (Democratic nominees have won the state in every presidential election since 1988), one wouldn’t know it looking at its weed laws. Recreational usage is a big “no” for now, and even medicinal cannabis in the state is pretty limited. While Governor Andrew Cuomo vowed to pass a weed legalization law by June of this year, he also acknowledged that the implementation wouldn’t be easy. Not to mention, the latest attempt to legalize weed in neighboring New Jersey just failed.
Yet, the law hasn’t stopped Barrett and other cannabis distributors in the state from hawking their wares relatively openly. Stoned Pizza, for example, isn’t hard to find: They have multiple Instagram accounts. Clicking through some of the hashtags on Barrett’s posts sends you down a rabbit hole into a world of edible suppliers in New York.
With such potent yet allegedly good-tasting (not to mention easily accessible) product, could Stoned Pizza be where the future of the edibles industry is going? Barrett is confident that New York will legalize weed soon, and he may be correct. Furthermore, as weed legalization becomes a bigger issue in the 2020 election, countrywide legal weed may no longer be a pipe dream.
But does that mean that in the next few years we could all be getting blasted out of our minds from the pizzeria around the corner? Is infused Rainbow Cookie Gelato the next CBD seltzer?
Well, it’s complicated.
“There's a lot of excitement around infused dinners and the concept of a cannabis restaurant—and we're going to get there,” Elise McDonough, MUNCHIES' Bong Appetit cookbook’s co-writer, longtime High Times staffer and former judge of their Cannabis Cup, said in a phone interview. “They're getting there in West Hollywood, there's going to be cannabis-infused restaurants within the next couple years, and that will be amazing.”
But McDonough, who has been in the cannabis industry since 2002, doesn’t see the regulated market going in that direction: “Where I see the regulated market going is towards effects-based products.” Manufacturers, according to McDonough, have begun “designer combinations” of edibles using different cannabinoid and terpene mixtures, marketing their products as having different effects, such as increasing creativity or easing anxiety.
As of 2019, legal edibles need to adhere to pretty strict regulations. In California, edibles are limited to a ten-milligram THC dose per piece and 100-milligram total per package. Gummies cannot be shaped like humans, animals, or fruit, and packaging cannot have branding that makes it look like something intended for children. McDonough herself wrote about how legal edibles in the state became "boring" due to the stringent laws.
Indeed, the regulated edible manufacturers that MUNCHIES spoke to believe the industry is going toward more testing. “We’re focused on making cannabis safe and approachable by really taking a scientific approach,” said Jake Heimark, the CEO of edibles brand PLUS Products. This trend toward a more streamlined, efficient way to get high is starting to take hold in the industry, with vape pens increasing in popularity over the last few years.
A quick scan of PLUS’s products offers a completely different experience than that of Stoned Pizza. PLUS offers edible gummies (no funky shapes, as per the law) that range from 0.5 to 5 milligrams of THC per gummy capping out at 100 milligrams per tin. They offer a variety of strains in addition to CBD gummies—a far cry from an eight-slice pizza infused with 340 milligrams of THC.
For Heimark, the future of the legal industry will hone in on the molecules that McDonough mentioned. “I think that the leading companies five years from now are not only going to be dialed into the THC and CBD molecules,” he told MUNCHIES over the phone, “But all the other things in cannabis, which are terpenes and CBT, or THCA and THCV.” In the future, Heimark maintains, companies can help customers understand how all these elements work together and how they affect you and your high.
Meanwhile, the focus is on dosage and consistency. “We have a responsibility—all the companies in cannabis have a responsibility—to actually help get the consistency right,” Heimark said. PLUS tests its products four times to assure the dosage is correct.
It’s a similar story for KIVA Confections, a brand that sells edible sweets like chocolates and gummies. According to co-founder Kristi Knoblich Palmer, testing has been a key component of the company since it launched in 2010.
“The foundation of a positive experience is getting the right dose,” Knoblich Palmer said. While California deems ten milligrams of THC one serving, KIVA found in their testing that ten milligrams can still be a high dose for beginners. This lead the company to settle on five milligrams as their standard dose. According to Knoblich Palmer, “We felt like five milligrams was a far more reasonable place for a newbie or somebody very sensitive to cannabis to begin.”
Knoblich Palmer went on to say that even five milligrams can be too much for some, so some of their products are 2.5 milligrams per serving.
Legal companies like KIVA and PLUS are opting to position themselves in the market as a way into edibles for consumers, rather than solely a product for experienced or heavy users.
Since state regulation, Heimark says customers have begun to expect consistency from their edibles. “I think that the legal industry is moving from one where historically it was only about how great your food product tastes,” Heimark explained. “Now companies are just pressured from consumers to really step up and make sure that the products work the same way every time.”
This desire, and companies’ corresponding focus on the new/law-abiding cannabis consumer do not apply to the black market—which is in fact thriving even in the legal state of California. This is due to a wide variety of reasons, such as cost (taxes), contempt towards what purveyors see as the corporatization of the industry, and the dosage regulations. If New York and other states follow California’s lead when legalizing weed, that means that similar regulations may be coming their way—which doesn’t bode well for Stoned Pizza.
“Pretty much every state that has legalized cannabis edibles must be lab tested and packaged according to these very stringent standards,” McDonough said. “Right now it’d be really hard to do pizza.”
Stoned Pizza has obviously survived despite its illegality, and Barrett insisted that he’s never gotten into trouble with law enforcement. “I’ve never been hiding,” he said. “They’re going to get me for pizza?”
While weed laws in New York leave much to be desired for people who want to use weed recreationally, in the past few years statistics show that New York City specifically has relaxed enforcement of low-level possession. Very recently, police announced they will not arrest people for THC oil possession unless it contains K2 chemicals. Furthermore, the state is looking to ban drug testing for weed for job applicants.
Barrett said that it’s actually Instagram, not the NYPD, that has continued to shut down his accounts every few months as a result of its policies. (Barrett and his team operate several accounts for Stoned Pizza in case this occurs again; their current most-followed account is @iamthepizzapusha.)
As the stigmatization around weed lessens, the laws may relax as well. Knoblich Palmer believes the California market is “a bit overregulated right now … We need to work together to help normalize cannabis and show people that cannabis isn't deserving of the stigma that it has.”
Whether the law will become more lax and lead to a return of the “fun” edibles of yore remains to be seen. But with cannabis restaurants on the horizon and cannabis cafés becoming a “thing,” it may one day be possible for both tiny gummies and potent pizzas to coexist in the legal market.
For now, Barrett will keep doing what he’s doing. “We sell America’s favorite foods and we pair it with America’s favorite drug,” Barrett said. “This is only the beginning.”