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.”
Parents, too, have a responsibility to keep it away from their children, he said, just as they would alcohol or cigarettes.
O’Bryan argued the regulated medical marijuana system hasn’t kept the drug out of kids’ hands.
According to a survey of middle and high school students in the Denver Public Schools, 2 percent of students said they had obtained pot from someone with a medical marijuana card. Four percent of 11th- and 12th-graders got it that way.
Colorado inspects stores to make sure they don’t sell to children.
O’Bryan wants regulations allowing stores to confiscate identifications, as liquor stores can do.
She also wants lower caps on the amount of concentrates that can be sold at one time; those are not as tightly limited in Colorado as they are in Washington, where only up to seven grams of extract for inhalation can be sold.
The U.S. Department of Justice has agreed not to crack down on Colorado and Washington marijuana sales, as long as they meet several goals, including keeping pot out of kids’ hands and preventing drugged driving.
As in Washington, Colorado law restricts impaired driving and refers to a limit of 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood, although there are differences in how the limit is applied. What it takes to reach that level has been hotly debated.
Inside the Dixie Elixirs warehouse, two workers harvest a golden-hued oil from the bottom of a machine into a flask.
They are at the end of a process that started with 10 to 19 pounds of plant material. Carbon dioxide is used to extract hash oil that will be used to create many of the products.
The warehouse is the company’s new home, which will eventually have 20,000 square feet of growing space but was less than half finished during a visit last month.
Two other flasks show what differences in temperatures and pressure can produce inside the machine. A brown oil with a floral smell is made to have lower levels of psychoactive THC.
A yellow powder is more highly concentrated. Recently developed, the Dixie Dust can be sprinkled on marijuana that will be smoked or oil that will be vaporized, making it more potent.
The price: $40 per half gram. “It’s kind of a connoisseur product,” explained the company’s director of science, Shellene Suemori.
Nearby are the light fixtures for a future grow operation and the shell of a future bottling system that, once operational, will replace the manual bottling done now and crank out about 1,000 elixirs an hour.
“This will be the finest marijuana facility certainly in the country but, I don’t want to sound too brash or arrogant, likely in the world,” Keber said later.
Keber rarely shies away from sounding brash. But he’s made a big bet that looks as if it is paying off.
A former real estate developer, Keber admittedly knew nothing about producing marijuana when he gambled four years ago on feeding Colorado’s appetite for alternative forms of pot. He prefers a Coors Light or a cigar.
In the early years, the company conformed to a medical market, talking about medicinal properties. Its latest advertisements show a tone geared toward recreational users.
“Our munchies give you the munchies,” says one poster advertising edibles such as the chewy chocolate Dixie Rolls and the fudge Colorado Bar.
If it has a little fun with its product, Keber’s company prides itself on consistency, on customers knowing how a given amount of Dixie’s product will affect them.
The company voluntarily includes activation time on the products’ labels and models its nutrition information after the FDA requirements.
The change in the marijuana culture could open it up to people who haven’t tried the drug before.
That’s what Jane West is counting on.
“I wanted to start this underground event series where people in my demographic, and women I would spend the weekend with, would all feel comfortable at a party where cannabis was consumed,” the wife and mother said.
That turned out to be more complicated than she thought.
The name Jane West, you see, is just a pseudonym she uses in the industry. In her day job, her bosses knew her as Amy Dannemiller, and they were apparently surprised to see her on CNBC last month, acknowledging her marijuana use and using a vaporizer.
CNBC’s website quotes Dannemiller calling herself “one part Martha Stewart and one part Walter White.”
That appearance, she said, broke her employer’s drug policy. She ran the western division of an unnamed national company that puts on conferences for high school students who want to be doctors, she said.
The company asked for her resignation, she said.
“Now I’m all in with this industry,” she said, splitting her time between her events company and a new part-time job at O.PenVape.
Her target demographic: women who think nothing of drinking wine or popping prescription pills, she said, but associate pot with smoke, smell and stoners.
“They remember an old weed consumed in an ancient way,” West said.
But now they can eat it, vaporize it or even take it in pill form. All of those uses are encouraged at the “bring your own cannabis” dinner parties she organizes, where she serves the meals and drinks. There are also opportunities to smoke outside or in a parked bus.
“I really want it to be as normalized as having a glass of wine,” West said.
As she can attest from experience, though, normalization hasn’t yet fully taken root.