It’s said that the Aztec emperor Montezuma used cacao beans like Viagra, popping handfuls of them before he got it on. The Olmecs of southern Mexico fermented, roasted and ground cacao beans for consuming (usually drinking) as early as 1500 B.C. In the 16th century, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés wrote to Spain’s King Carlos I about “xocolatl,” a drink that “builds up resistance and fights fatigue.” Cacao made its way to Spain and across Europe, where it became the preferred morning and bedtime drink of the upper classes.
Many chefs and scientists believe chocolate and cannabis are an ideal pairing, not only because chocolate masks hashy flavor but also because the two share chemical cousins—THC and anandamide—which affect appetite, mood and pain perception. THC, probably the most famous molecule in cannabis, fits into cannabinoid receptors in the human body, causing psychoactive and medical effects. Anandamide, a lipid found in chocolate (and also produced in the human brain), is nearly chemically identical to THC and brings on a very mild, some say imperceptible, high. When THC and anandamide double team, scientists believe, they could inhibit the breakdown of the cannabinoids THC and CBD, causing them to stay in the system longer and enhancing their benefits.
What this means is, most people get higher and stay high longer when they combine cannabis and chocolate. That’s one reason the pot brownie has endured.
Derek Cumings was counting on the cannabis-chocolate connection when he paid $80 for his first legal pan of Betty Crocker pot-butter brownies at a Denver-area dispensary, not long after Colorado voters legalized medical marijuana in 2000. It was well before Colorado had regulations for cannabis-infused food, or “edibles,” and Cumings, who was using cannabis to replace pharmaceuticals for severe pain, needed strong medicine. His brownies were delivered in a red-and-white-checkered cardboard container wrapped in Saran wrap—production standards were on par with or a few steps below those of neighborhood bake sales back then—and he didn’t care. Cumings and a friend devoured the entire pan while sitting in the dispensary’s barbed-wire-enclosed parking lot, then waited, waited some more, and… nothing.
Beyond disappointed, Cumings, now a director at Medically Correct, Colorado’s largest cannabis-infused food producer, has been chasing the holy grail of effective, reliably dosed cannabis delivery ever since.
After co-owning a dispensary and a stint with Denver cannabis-extraction company Pink House Labs, Cumings joined Bob Eschino and Rick Scarpello of Medically Correct in 2010. Scarpello, who invented Udi’s gluten-free bread, and Eschino, a veteran in the food packaging and marketing industry, were making and distributing cannabis-infused baked goods with a chef handpicked from Udi’s—and no reliable means of getting cannabis into the brownies.
“We knew we needed to become an extraction company,” Scarpello said, “and we sought out Derek.”
Cumings convinced the partners to invest in closed-loop butane extraction equipment, which nearly bankrupt the company, but allowed it to consistently produce the concentrated THC oil it needed as it transitioned to making chocolate bars, which are less bulky, easier to consistently dose and have a much longer shelf life than baked goods.
Incredibles, a beloved line of chocolate bars in Colorado, was born.
That same year, Andrew Schrot moved from Florida to Denver with an $80,000 loan from his parents, intent on creating an edibles company. While he and a friend were researching the market, his friend ate a cookie with a label that said it had 100 milligrams of THC, but that a budtender said had tested at 50. After all the edibles they’d eaten during their research, the friends figured they had developed a tolerance; 50 to 100 milligrams didn’t seem insanely high. But when Schrot’s friend passed out for 16 hours, Schrot didn’t know what to do.
“The whole dosing thing wasn’t really talked about back then,” he said.
The experience made Schrot hyper-conscious about dosing. He launched his company, Blue Kudu, in 2011 with a tempered chocolate roll that got rave reviews from dispensary patients but was cumbersome to cut into accurately dosed pieces. A year later, Blue Kudu switched gears and started making 10-piece chocolate bars that were easily breakable into squares with 10 milligrams of THC each.
The move wasn’t popular with dispensary owners and budtenders, whose patients were familiar with the roll and didn’t like change, and it lost Blue Kudu space (since regained) in a handful of dispensaries. Schrot did it because he knew dosing would become a huge factor in the growth and acceptance of edibles in Colorado. Blue Kudu chocolate bars are now in almost every dispensary and retail store in the state.
Until recent years, “dosing” with the edibles found on Colorado’s dispensary shelves was a crap shoot. Even after Colorado House Bill 1284 created a medical marijuana state licensing authority in 2010, no one paid much attention to food safety and standards. The Marijuana Enforcement Division, under the Department of Revenue, focused on law enforcement and following the money. Edibles weren’t tested for potency, dosing was inconsistent and horror stories about THC-addled patients got inordinate media and social media attention.
New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd brought it all to a head with her now-infamous 2014 column about overdosing to the point of hallucination on three squares of a chocolate bar while researching Denver’s newly legal adult-use market. Dowd compared the caramel-chocolate bar to the Sky Bars she loved as a child and ended the column by calling Medically Correct’s Enschino “paranoid” for suggesting cannabis edibles were overly regulated because of a few isolated incidents.
Regulators and industry leaders leapt to attention, sponsoring education campaigns urging consumers—particularly tourists—to “start low and go slow” and recommending that people eat no more than 10 milligrams the first time (or the first time in a long time) they eat cannabis-laced food. After 2014, everything—packaging, labeling, lab-testing, food safety and potency requirements—changed.
The Marijuana Inventory Tracking System (MITS) was implemented to follow every cannabis plant from seed to sale. (Designed to keep legally grown plants off the black market, MITS also makes it possible to track pesticide contamination or salmonella outbreaks to their source.) Edibles sold in adult-use (recreational) stores must be wrapped or demarked in segments containing 10 milligrams or less of activated THC, and gummies cannot be shaped like animals, fruit or people.
Keeping up with all these rules and regulations isn’t cheap.
Stamping every piece of cannabis-infused food with the letters THC and an exclamation point inside a diamond meant companies had to buy expensive new molds and stencils or edible inks. Manufacturers often get stuck with no-longer-compliant inventory, MITS tags and packaging, and the paperwork requires professionals.
“In this business, half the battle, if not more, is remaining compliant,” said Blue Kudu’s Schrot. “And it’s so expensive to remain compliant, especially when we can’t have tax write-offs or get reasonable loans” because cannabis remains federally illegal.
Eschino has seen it all. Medically Correct officially became an extraction company with Incredibles Extracts and Extractors in 2014 and has licensing operations for Incredibles chocolates and extractions in four other states, pending in 12.
“In Oregon, we had to resubmit our labels 12 times. We had to break down the ingredients for milk chocolate and name the nuts used in our facilities on every package,” Eschino explained. “You don’t have to do these things for regular food, and I keep screaming as new states come on to impose the same rules for agriculture, lab extractions and commercial kitchens that everyone else follows. Stop driving up our costs and messing up our production.”
Every time Incredibles has to raise prices, Eschino figures he loses customers to a black market that continues to thrive because legal cannabis products aren’t cheap enough yet. He may be right, or Maureen Dowd may be (does he sound paranoid?), but as Colorado’s free-for-all legal cannabis market has become a regulated free market, a few dozen edibles companies have thrived and a whole lot have failed.
For the edibles companies left standing, it’s been a good ride.
Medically Correct now employs 80 people and runs three grows with 2,300 plants, an extraction lab and a 10,000-square-foot production facility out of two warehouses in west Denver, where it breeds and grows dozens of strains including Sour Band, Jilly Bean and Orange Soda (bred in-house) for cannabinoid and terpene extractions through an extractor designed and built in house, in the country’s first Class 1 Division 1 ETL-certified lab.
Lab manager Max Eisler and his extraction artists use a closed-loop butane extractor to distill and isolate cannabinoids and terpenes. The extraction team works with executive chef Josh Fink and his team to determine which oils should be used with which chocolate bars.
“We can load up a lot of hash into a dark chocolate with mint bar, but we have to be more critical in determining which oil to use with white chocolate,” Eisler explained.
Blue Kudu recently moved into an 8,400-square-foot warehouse in northeast Denver with a six-figure explosion-proof extraction room, where every month 150 pounds of cannabis trim is turned into concentrate and mixed with 4,000 pounds of Rainforest Alliance and Fair Trade-certified artisan chocolate in a clean, spacious kitchen that produces 45,000 chocolate bars every month.
Schrot says Blue Kudu will expand from 18 employees to nearly 30 when the company’s 11,000 square feet of greenhouses are complete and producing later this year. Schrot plans to grow 2,300 plants—1,800 adult-use and 500 medical, HIGH TIMES Cannabis Cup winners only—and the grow will help immensely with quality control. Blue Kudu hasn’t been affected, but other edibles companies in Colorado have had products recalled because the growers they bought from used illegal pesticides.
Medically Correct and Blue Kudu are expanding along with the market.
In Colorado, edibles brought in $120 million, a 37 percent increase over 2014’s $87 million and 12 percent of all cannabis sales, according to data from BDS Analytics. Chocolates are the second most popular cannabis-infused edible, after candy. Through November 2016, edibles sales hit $164 million and accounted for 14 percent of total cannabis sales—37 percent ahead of 2015 with a month of sales remaining. Edibles sales continue to grow, said Greg Shoenfeld, director of dispensary relations for BDS Analytics, but the hottest growth category is pills.
Pills are popular because they’re discreet, reliable and accurately dosed. They’re great for people who don’t want a deep, lingering high. Chocolate companies are taking note and catering to consumers at both high and low extremes with 500- and even 1,000-milligram bars for medical patients and 2.5-milligram bars for microdosers, as well as bars high in CBD, a beneficial cannabinoid that doesn’t deliver psychoactive effects.
Incredibles and Blue Kudu are both coming out with 10-milligram chocolate bars made up of four 2.5-milligram squares (great for chocolate lovers who can’t help but eat the entire damn bar). Blue Kudu introduced a black cherry-flavored chocolate bar with 60 milligrams of CBD in June 2016, and Incredibles’ black cherry CBD bar was 2016’s Best CBD Edible at the HIGH TIMES Cannabis Cup competition.
Seeing opportunity in low-dose chocolates, former Morgan Stanley director Peter Barsoom left New York for Colorado with his partner, Ghita Tarzi, in 2015 to build a company based on the idea that “most of us don’t have six hours to have a date with an edible.” Barsoom believes products formulated to deliver reliable “moods and experiences,” without getting people “blasted,” are the future.
His company, 1906, is named for the past—the year Congress enacted the Pure Food and Drug Act, preventing “manufacture, sale or transportation of adulterate or misbranded or poisonous or deleterious foods, drugs, medicines, and liquors,” paving the way for, and effectively launching, cannabis prohibition. 1906 wants to bring consumers back to pre-prohibition days, when people could reliably dose themselves with over-the-counter elixirs made from cannabis and other herbs.
In November 2016, 1906 hit the shelves of about 15 Colorado dispensaries with premium boxed chocolates marrying cacao, cannabis and other ethnobotanical ingredients like corydalis (used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat insomnia) and theobromine (a stimulant already found in chocolate) in three strain-specific “experiences”—GO, with Whiteout, theobromine, caffeine, theanine and yohimbe for body energy; PAUSE, with Pokie and magnolia for calm; and MIDNIGHT, with Blue Dream and corydalis for sleep. HIGH LOVE, with Blue Dream, damiana, muira puama, catuaba, yohimbe and theobromine for romance, was released this month.
Barsoom claims the 5-milligram chocolates take effect more quickly than other edibles because they’re infused with THC and CBD molecules that have been encapsulated with lipids (fats), which protect them from being destroyed in the large intestine and push them into the small intestine and bloodstream more quickly than uncoated molecules. According to Barsoom, an in-house, double-blind study of 60 adults found that users start to feel the effects of 1906 chocolates within 15 minutes—much faster than the 30 minutes to an hour (or more) it can take for most edibles to come on.
Justin Kirkland, 1906’s chief scientist and the brains behind lipid encapsulation, spent years developing drug-delivery techniques for the pharmaceutical industry and knows a few things about getting active ingredients into the bloodstream as quickly as possible. 1906 has filed paperwork with the city of Denver to do cannabis extractions at its 6,259-square-foot facility in north Denver, but for now Kirkland and his team work with THC oil from Boulder dispensary The Farm and extract other botanicals so they can play with taste masking and particle coating.
1906’s goal is to bring together nature (organically grown cannabis and plant medicines) and science (faster delivery, consistency and dosing) to offer “an elevated cannabis experience,” Barsoom explained.
Soon, 1906 plans to introduce massage oils and tablets and follow Incredibles and Blue Kudu into the gummies market.
“We set out to create a line of products for health-conscious adults focused on experiences that had great flavor and were fast acting,” Barsoom said. “We started with chocolate because chocolate is universally loved, and there’s science behind how cannabis and chocolate both affect the endocannabinoid system. It’s a great medium.”
Robyn Griggs Lawrence