When Colorado legalized recreational marijuana use earlier this year, it also opened up the sale of food products infused with the drug to anyone over the age of 21. That means a whole set of bakers and food companies have to ensure their products aren’t contaminated with foodborne pathogens, and that they’re not falling in to the hands of children or too potent to eat.
So far, state regulators and legislators have been fairly hands-on, earning the praise of public policy think tanks like the Brookings Institution. A recent report applauded the state, saying “its early implementation efforts have been impressive,” while noting that it still had a ways to go when it comes to edible marijuana.
In the months since retail marijuana sales began, problems with potency have made headlines, and turned into public relations headaches for the marijuana industry. Some eager, inexperienced consumers have overindulged on the pot-infused food and then showed up in emergency rooms sweating and paranoid. Edibles were linked to the death of a Wyoming college student in Denver.
“There’s been anecdotal evidence that some of the new consumers in the legalized market were not very well informed in terms of how to safely take that product,” said Lewis Koski, director of the Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division.
State rules now limit the serving size of foods infused with THC and ensure the package label warns people about what they’re going to eat. Colorado law already requires a paragraph of information be included on labels. Adding more notes to packages of THC-infused chocolate and granola bars won’t likely increase safety, Koski said.
“If you continue to put other warnings on there you have to really question whether or not that becomes effective as a means to really educate a consumer,” Koski said.
Most of the education has fallen to the pot shops themselves. Brendon Greney works behind the counter at Organic Alternatives, a recreational and medical marijuana store in Fort Collins, Colo. Greney is a budtender, as in marijuana flower buds, and his job is much more than running a cash register. With labels packed full of information, Greney says most people don’t read them. He views himself as an educator.
For instance, when a customer asks about orange flavored THC-infused liquids in little spray bottles -- like a breath freshener – he’s able to walk them through an appropriate dose.
“I don’t know what your tolerance is,” Greney said. “It varies by the individual and metabolism. But 10 milligrams is what we recommend.”
The shop is filled with other items, too, including granola bars, chocolates and gummy bears. Many edibles stick to the sweets, with candies and chocolates dominating store shelves. But as marijuana acceptance spreads, entrepreneurs are testing the limits of consumer tastes. A pop-up food truck has tested THC-infused pulled pork sandwiches.
“This is fun. It should be fun,” said budtender Greney. “And I think it’s safe if consumed and used the right way and this gives us an opportunity to share that information with people. It’s not some scary back alley thing.”
Organic Alternatives is fielding questions from customers that span not just the United States, but the entire globe. Open for recreational sales since the end of June 2014, the store has already had visitors from all seven continents. The store says a researcher based in Antarctica recently bought from them.
“It’s really our job and our responsibility to educate them and let them know, this is a lot different than what your friend made in the ‘60s,” said Organic Alternatives manager Maka Kalaí.
The relatively young industry of edible marijuana manufacturing is still learning lessons in professionalism and good business practices. Before Jan. 1, these food companies operated in a legal gray area in Colorado, serving medical marijuana patients, not the general public.
In a Denver conference room, that transition from underground market to a more established, respected one is on display. It’s set up like a classroom. The students all have one thing in common. They’re making, testing and selling edible marijuana.
“Today is not a cannabis cooking class. It’s about food safety,” Maureen McNamara tells the room.
For years McNamara has taught kitchen staff how to wash their hands and keep food at the right temperature. But just recently she started a side business to pass along the same information to people making food infused with THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana, calling her enterprise “Cannabis Trainers,” with classes on food safety and proper in-store education from budtenders.
Trainings like McNamara’s are mandatory for pot-infused food preparers. Edibles makers also have to test their products for potency, molds, and foodborne pathogens. Any violations handed out by the state could put them out of business.
“As someone who eats food, and as someone who has eaten food with THC in it, I very much want to know what it is that I’m eating. What am I putting into my body?” said Monique Nobil, director of marketing for Julie and Kate Baked Goods, a Denver-based THC-infused granola producer.
It’s in the best interest of marijuana food manufacturers to make sure first-time consumers have a good experience, Nobil says. The growth of the industry depends on it. The company’s granola packages are sold with a card telling consumers to “Start Low, and Go Slow.”
“You want to do it in a way that’s responsible,” Nobil said. “So that you know your end product is what you say it is. And so your consumer knows exactly what it is.”
Colorado is in uncharted regulatory territory.
“This is the direct result of taking a product that used to exist on the underground market and putting it into a legal regulated one,” said Taylor West, deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association.
“Now we have the impetus to do things like trainings to be sure that everything is being handled in a professional manner. You don’t have that in an illegal market,” West said.
Creating a legal, regulated market though has presented some challenges. Regulators worried pot candies would appeal to children, so they forced all foods to be sold in child-resistant packages. Washington state, also working to establish rules for a recreational marijuana industry, has banned marijuana-infused candies, but allows baked goods and bottled drinks.
While Colorado and Washington attempt to create standards for the recreational marijuana sector, other states are watching closely.
“I would think for any state that is looking to go down that path, they’d be crazy not to look at Colorado and look at the successes and look at the places where we’ve had to tweak things,” West said.
Harvest Public Media, based at KCUR, is a collaborative public media project that reports on important agricultural issues in the Midwest. You can read more about the project on their website.