By Jordan Schrader The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.)
These are not your father's pot brownies.
The products inside a warehouse on the outskirts of Denver are something different: Mints. Truffles. Flavored drops in an eyedropper bottle. Tasteless pills. Bottled carbonated beverages.
"This is the future of cannabis," reads the label on an aluminum bottle sold by Dixie Elixirs.
But it's the drink label's information, not its claims, that explains why these kinds of products might truly represent the future.
Alternatives to smoking marijuana can already be found across the country. But they may be growing in popularity, raising worries for some people that sweet pot-laced treats will make the drug more attractive to kids.
This is the new world of state-regulated marijuana, in which products are tracked, inspected and labeled, encouraging the kind of standardized manufacturing that is making them more palatable.
Once, it was hard to know how strong a marijuana-infused treat would be, or when it might kick in.
But on this label, a dial represents the carbonated drink's potency: 75 mg of THC. Below that is the "activation time." In this case, a drinker can expect to feel the high in 45 minutes.
The nearby nutrition facts look like the ones on ordinary grocery labels mandated by the Food and Drug Administration, even though this product is federally illegal.
The 1/2 ounce bottle shows a recommended serving size: 1.1 ounces, barely more than in a small shot glass. Perfect for passing the bottle around at a social gathering, its makers say, although it's hard to imagine that recommendation being followed any more than most snackers limit themselves to a single serving of potato chips.
Consumers should take the numbers on labels with a grain of salt, at least when it comes to potency.
"There's going to be some plus-or-minus to it," said Randy Simmons, a regulator who is deputy director of the Washington State Liquor Control Board.
Labs haven't proved they can nail down the potency of marijuana-infused edibles exactly, he said. But he said the labels should be close, aside from any that intentionally try to fool customers into buying less potent stuff.
Customers are eager for infused products. Owner Tripp Keber says Dixie Elixirs' sales are 10 times what they were before Jan. 1.
That's when formerly all-medical stores started selling marijuana to any adult who wants it.
Dixie sells to nearly all of Colorado's medical dispensaries, including those that now double as retail stores, and Keber said he has plans to expand to Washington and other states where marijuana is allowed.
Keber said infused products make up half of Colorado's marijuana market. That's up from 10 percent or less just four years ago, he said.
That includes not just edibles but also concentrates such as hash oil that can be smoked or vaporized.
Dixie Elixirs makes food, drink, pills, concentrates, vaporizers, everything but the traditional buds that most people would picture when they think about marijuana.
All of which begs the question: Will smoking pot become a thing of the past?
It's not as unlikely as it sounds, according to an expert.
"My guess is oral administration and vaporization are going to wipe out smoking," predicted Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Pot smoke is "pretty harsh," he said, and the alternatives are becoming safer now that they are available in verifiably measured doses.
"I think breathing smoke, 20 years from now, is going to seem like some kind of weird crap they did back in the 1990s," said Kleiman, who was hired as a consultant by Washington's marijuana regulators as they designed a licensing scheme.
Many places in Colorado and around the country are smoke-free, making it harder for many renters and tourists, particularly, to smoke pot.
One alternative is a vaporizer. Users inhale the mist from the devices without smoke, similar to how e-cigarettes work. Some brands are shaped like pens.
"The vape pens are hugely popular right now," said Michael Elliott, executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group, a Colorado trade association. "That's something that seems like something that could thrive in a licensed, regulated market and not in a black market, because it takes manufacturing."
Tim Cullen, who co-owns a company that makes vaporizers under the brand O.PenVape, said the virtually odorless pens are more discreet than smoking, especially for parents with kids at home. Pens under their brand are sold in about 100 Colorado stores, he said.
The same partners own Evergreen Apothecary and Colorado Harvest Co., medical dispensaries that now double as recreational stores.
About 20 percent of their sales come from vaporizers and another 30 percent from edibles, Cullen said.
Jeanne Newland's delivery system of choice was a candy chew.
A customer last month at Evergreen Apothecary, she consulted with the clerk, or budtender, about how much to take.
"I told him I don't want to be knocked out," Newland said.
She wanted a moderate and predictable high. The clerk advised taking a quarter of the chew.
But candy isn't dandy to some advocates trying to keep marijuana out of the hands of kids.
Rachel O'Bryan, a lawyer and mother of a 12-year-old son, helped work on the task force that crafted state regulations. She said sweet pot-laced treats send the wrong message to children.
"We don't think candy belongs combined with a psychoactive ingredient," said O'Bryan, who has joined with fellow parents and other advocates in a group called Smart Colorado.
She pointed to a picture of a cream-filled, marijuana-infused cupcake that is sold in some Colorado stores. It looks like a Hostess cupcake, complete with white frosting swirl.
"Childhood favorites," she said. "And by the way, this may (have) 10 servings of marijuana in it, and a child would eat that whole, and my kid would eat two of them, OK? If he didn't know that was marijuana."
As in Washington, each container of food and drink sold in Colorado stores may have up to 10 servings or 100 mg of THC.
She continues flipping through other pictures from the Internet showing edibles at Colorado dispensaries.
"The rice crispy treats. Cereal. And then the real one that kills us is the goldfish. ... That's how little kids learn to pick up food, is goldfish."
Colorado's regulations prevent infusing marijuana into a brand-name product.
The edibles have to be generic, non-trademarked food, and they can't cause confusion with a brand name. So rice crispy treats can't be Rice Krispies treats, and knockoff candies like "Snockers" bars are likely out, as well.
The edibles are sold in opaque bags meant to be childproof.
O'Bryan said once they are taken out of the package, they are indistinguishable from typical and brand-name foods.
As she poured a packet of sugar into her iced tea at a Denver restaurant before picking up her son from middle school, O'Bryan noted that flavored cigarettes are federally banned.
"Here we have sugar, fruit flavorings and food colorings added to marijuana, but no one at the state level has been willing to say that markets to kids inherently," O'Bryan said. "Because edibles are a big business."
Newland, the customer at the retail dispensary, disagreed. She said kids will find marijuana no matter what if they want it, but she doesn't see much advertising, let alone advertising to kids.
"The reason people like edibles is not everybody likes to smoke," she said.
Keber says it's enough that Colorado's edibles must be sold in childproof, tamper-resistant packaging, and without labels featuring animals or cartoony images, Joe Camel-style.
Sweet flavors don't automatically market to kids, he said.
"I would equate it to saying that Pepsi is designed for children because it's sweet or flavored," Keber said.
Dixie's products are sold in opaque packages. "You're not going to see anything that screams to a child, come take me off the shelf," Keber said. "This is (like) a product that you might find at a high-end chocolatier or Neiman Marcus, if you will."