Age of the edibles awaits Oregon cannabis lovers as state changes law

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Businesses are gearing up as previously prohibited cannabis-infused drinks, cakes and candies are about to become a legal alternative to smoking marijuana

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Melanie Sevcenko guardian.com

These days, the “pot brownie” is as outdated as Betty Crocker, with cannabis edibles reaching new highs in innovation and tastes. At Portland dispensary Oregon’s Finest, cannabis-infused root beer, artisan cake bites, chocolate truffles, gummy candies and even cold brew coffee are among the delicacies.

Recreational cannabis, in the form of flower (or “bud”), has been legal to purchase in Oregon since October 2015, but edibles have remained the forbidden fruit, available only to medical marijuana cardholders. From Thursday all that’s about to change.

Oregon has approved the sale of marijuana edibles to recreational consumers and sellers are preparing to unleash everything from cannabis-infused ice cream and frozen pizza to beef jerky on to the market.

Megan Marchetti of Oregon’s Finest said the shop is expecting a bump in sales, not least from customers who previously took the 10-mile pilgrimage across the bridge into Washington state – where edibles have been recreationally available since 2014.

It’s Marchetti’s opinion that Oregon will be the natural leader in cannabis snacky treats because, simply, it’s got better bud. “I lived in the Netherlands and all over the country, trying to figure out where the best weed in the world is. It’s in Oregon,” said Marchetti. “You combine that with Oregon’s need to have everything artisan and crafted, so you have really great products. Of everything I’ve seen our game is the tightest.”

As more US states move to legalization of cannabis, edibles have worried the authorities because they could potentially fall into the hands of children or prove worryingly strong for some users.

Oregon has arguably gone the furthest in its attempts to address these concerns. The temporary rules for 2 June – as determined by the Oregon health authority (OHA) – permit dispensaries to sell one cannabinoid edible containing a maximum of 15mg THC (the principal psychoactive constituent of cannabis) per customer per day. “Fifteen mg can be too high for a lot of people who are new to THC edibles,” said David McNicoll, producer of Dave’s Space Cakes, a gluten-free cupcake. “You really need to start with 5mg and learn what your dosage level is.”

Oregon Responsible Edibles Council (Orec), of which McNicoll is a member, has launched a “Try Five” campaign, which encourages first-time users to consume edibles containing only 5mg THC – and avoid overindulgent freak-outs.

Protecting cannabis users also extends to their children, which is why the OHA requires all edibles, whether retail or medical, to be sealed in child-resistant safety packaging.

The number of reported marijuana exposures in children under the age of six in Oregon increased from 14 in 2014, to 25 in 2015 and already 10 cases have been reported in the first three months of this year. Rob Hendrickson, associate medical director at the Oregon Poison Center, said it’s possible that incidents will increase after 2 June, as edibles can be easily mistaken for regular baked goods or candy.

Packing rules will change again towards the end of 2016, when the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) absorbs the recreational market, as will potency levels. An entire package (or edible) will be limited to 50mg THC, with each serving capped at 5mg. That’s half the strength of medical edibles, and half the dosage permitted in Washington and Colorado.

The shifting rules are causing confusion. Producers of ice cream or soda, which is difficult to divide or score into 15mg THC servings, might have to sit this round out.

Yet some vendors are fast to adapt, like the producers of Sour Bhotz, a robot-shaped gummy edible which is among the top sellers at Oregon’s Finest. The fat-free and gluten-free candy will morph into something closer to “sour bitz” – robot parts – to qualify for the provisional THC limits. But the rewards on offer are huge.
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Edibles will be a big market, says John Kagia, director of industry analytics at New Frontier, a cannabis data-collecting firm. The reason, he explained, is multifold: edibles are attractive to non-smokers, they offer a discreet way to consume cannabis, and their selection and quality is as appealing for taste as it is for psychoactive effects. In Washington, edibles make up 10% of sales in the recreational market, but that number is growing rapidly. Oregon is expected to follow suit.

“It’s going to be huge,” said Laurie Wolf, founder of Laurie & MaryJane, which produces both sweet and savory edibles. “I think it’s going to be crazy in the beginning,” said Wolf, a professional chef and food author.

“My dream was to become the Martha Stewart of edibles,” said Wolf, whose Nut Mix and Almond Cake Bites took first and second prize at the Seattle DOPE Cup last year. “Since marijuana became recreationally legal, the edibles sales have dropped considerably,” she said. “We’re looking forward to them being back on the market.”
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Yet before it can reach watering mouths in food form, all marijuana sold in Oregon must be screened for about 60 pesticides commonly used in cannabis cultivation, along with potency levels. Edibles, like Wolf’s cake bites, will undergo various lab tests, first as bud then as butter.

But that’s where the protocol gets hazy. Most edible producers are operating with small teams, limited funds and under little oversight, contributing to discrepancies between labeling and actual dosage.

According to a 2015 report by the Journal of the American Medical Association, of 75 edible products from 47 different brands across the country, 17% were accurately labeled, 23% were under-labeled, and 60% were over-labeled with respect to THC content.

“It’s complicated, because on a national level weed is illegal,” said Rodger Voelker, lab director at Oregon Grower’s (OG) Analytical, which tests cannabis for dispensary sales. “There is no level playing field in regards to quality, and no accountability. Until somebody tells them you can’t be deceiving customers, it’s going to continue to happen.”

A critical step in producing consistent edibles involves a finished product test. Unfortunately, there isn’t one. Instead, labs have devised their own methods – none of which have been validated by any national regulatory body, like the FDA, which is yet to step into the edibles sector.

OG Analytical is working with other laboratories to devise a uniform set of tests that can shared among states where marijuana is legal. In the meantime, Voelker warns edible producers: “Study up on what you’re supposed to be doing as though the feds were already involved, because I guarantee you that’s the direction it’s going to go.”

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