Pour one out for Millennials—their tipsy may soon be reaching a tipping point.
Earning less and often working more, maybe multitasking younger generations simply can’t afford it. Or perhaps it’s the ubiquity of walking, talking media brands—their peers—and their eagerness for salacious new content keeping those spontaneous (often compromising) wild nights at bay.
Thirsting for new revenue streams in a market fixated on wellness, some of the nation’s biggest beverage brands have begun to make inroads in the wild world of cannabis. Cannabis drinks pulled in $86 million in 2018, and are expected to be a $1.4 billion industry by 2023, according to beverage industry analyst Zenith Global. Last year, Anheuser-Busch InBev, Molson Coors, and Corona-maker Constellation Brands each announced partnerships with Canadian cannabis companies. And Diageo, parent of spirits such as Tanqueray and Johnnie Walker and recent majority holder of nonalcoholic spirit label Seedlip, is poised to make a similar move in the U.S.
Whether this is a prescient pivot or flimsy bandwagon betting is yet to be seen, but it does provide a unique opportunity for the cannabis market: a new way to consume for a broader, more mainstream customer base. Unlike smoking—obtrusive and stinky!—sipping has the potential to feel less like an illicit drug and more like the socially acceptable ones, like coffee and alcohol.
But there are some potential hiccups on the road to mainstream use, starting with the price. A four-pack of THC-infused bottled (nonalcoholic) margaritas runs around $25; so too could one 12 oz. bottle of gnarly lemonade. Just a glimpse could scare away consumers before they get to the details, like potency, which informs the price but is a wildcard all its own.
The potential pitfall with potency is that it’s all over the map. Early on, when the medicinal cannabis market was more niche, infused drinks reliably skewed strong. Now, a beer-sized infused drink might contain a modest 2.5 mg of THC…or a walloping 100 mg and beyond. While products with mind-erasing potencies are often divvied up into reasonable servings in fine print on the back label, one can easily see how they could induce a real nightmare for uneducated consumers (i.e., first-time buyers). If the goal of many of these brands is to replace social alcohol drinking, an uninvited psychosis isn’t the way there.
Perhaps the most basic issue regarding premades so far has been, does it actually taste good? With terms ranging from soapy and barnyard to dirty socks and urine, the Wall Street Journal surveyed many startups’ struggles to tamp down on the trifling taste of cannabis drinks, whether by soaking and straining, nanoemulsion, or selectively enhancing more palatable flavor profiles in the plant while attempting to minimize others, all to varied success.
As is often the case, some of the complications come from the oily, hydrophobic properties of cannabis compounds. This makes THC and CBD drinks prone to unsightly separation, with all of the greasy, grassy cannabis taste floating to the top, ready to kiss your lips. (Then again, lots of people routinely find a way to look past the less-than-exquisite taste of alcohol, so maybe there is hope?)
A newer wave of infused beverages, however, comes in the form of powder and liquid mixes, many of which use technology to extract the active ingredients while filtering out the unsavory elements, rather than fussing with flavors to disguise them.
“The problem with most mixes is that there’s usually some clumping or sediment, or like premades, the mix doesn’t stay suspended,” says Michael Frid, chief scientific officer at Manna Molecular Science. Another common problem, he says, is all the sugar.
“We always keep in mind that some of our customers may be diabetic or have diets that don’t involve carbohydrates or just people who watch what they eat,” Frid says. “So we’re very cognizant of not adding anything that will meaningfully impact anybody’s dietary intake.”
By extracting only the desired plant compounds and tweaking their chemistry, he and his team are in the lab developing drink mixes to get around these pitfalls, starting with the flavor: flavorless.
“If someone is drinking coffee, then presumably that person likes the taste of coffee,” he says. “We don’t want to interfere with what people already like.”
Employing the same nanoencapsulated liposomal technology used in Manna’s other products, the mixes are expected to similarly boost absorption rates and disperse evenly throughout the drink with a modest shake, Frid says.
Further testing, including pharmacokinetic studies, which are commonly done on new pharmaceuticals to examine what the body does to a drug, is planned sometime near the products’ launch, which is expected in early 2020.
More than 40 deaths and 2,000 sickened—each time you check, the numbers keep ticking up.
While much is still unknown about the vaping crisis, the saga has increasingly underscored the perils—and proliferation—of the cannabis black market. Some 78% of reported cases are tied to illicit THC products, according to the CDC, though there have been nicotine-only cases as well.
Known variously as VAPI (vaping-associated pulmonary injury) and, more recently, Evali (e-cigarette, or vaping, product use associated lung injury), the condition, which officials began noticing in the spring, includes symptoms such as coughing, chest pain, shortness of breath, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
The response by some states has been swift. Michigan, New York, Washington and Rhode Island quickly announced stopgap bans on flavored vaping products, while Massachusetts has gone whole hog prohibiting any vaping anything. New Mexico now requires warning labels on all vaping cartridge packaging.
Before a battery of TV cameras, Donald Trump, announcing plans to ban flavored e-cigarettes to curb use among minors, declared his assessment of the crisis in trademark style: “It’s really not wonderful—I think that’s one thing we can say definitely.”
So how is the legal cannabis industry, which is already on shaky regulatory ground, responding to this not-wonderful turn of events? The answer, it turns out, is not by going on the defensive, but by amplifying the message its had all along: legalize and regulate us.
“People on the street are not trying to make their own Tylenol, you know?” says Michael Kahn, president of MCR Labs, a Massachusetts firm that tests thousands of cannabis products each month for potency and safety. “And if they did, somebody might die, but they don’t because it’s a really well regulated product.”
In mid-September, a high point in the epidemic’s media attention, the National Cannabis Industry Association similarly issued a call to Congress:
“These unfortunate illnesses and deaths are yet another terrible, and largely avoidable, consequences of failed prohibition policies. Current federal laws interfere with research, prevent federal regulatory agencies from establishing safety guidelines, discourage states from regulating cannabis, and make it more difficult for state-legal cannabis businesses to displace the illicit market. These policies are directly bolstering the markets for untested and potentially dangerous illicit products,” NCIA Executive Director Aaron Smith said in a statement. “It is now the responsibility of Congress to end prohibition and regulate cannabis without delay.”
Publishing their findings in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers at the Mayo Clinic have since found the injuries to resemble chemical burns akin to mustard gas rather than an infection, as was initially suspected. Still, much of the inquiry is focused on vitamin E acetate, a popular thickening diluent used to cheaply cut illicit THC cartridges for more profit. In early October, a federal investigation concluded that nearly half of the vaping injuries studied contained it.
When heated by a vaporizer, vitamin E acetate transforms from a liquid oil to a vapor, which is then inhaled by the user. Once in the lungs, it reverts to a liquid state, wherein could lie the harmful effects.
As a result, many cannabis labs are adding vitamin E acetate to their list of things they screen for.
“If it’s not Vitamin E acetate, somebody’s going to cut something with something to make more money,” Kahn says. “Generally the regulated market doesn’t do that; it’s too risky.”
About a week after reports named vitamin E acetate as a possible culprit, he and his team began offering two free tests for it to anybody who was concerned about the products they had.
Since then, the extra scrutiny on bootleg cartridges (aka carts) has both added to the case for federal legalization and raised questions about legitimate-seeming manufacturers.
A recent Leafly investigation tracing a common route of illicit carts—from raw materials in Shenzhen, China, to dirty-cash suppliers in LA’s Toy District to crackpot “labs” in Midwestern rental homes—shines a light on how frighteningly easy it is for anyone with an internet connection to make illicit THC carts, fake Juul pods, and CBD whatever.
That includes Dank Vapes and Chronic Carts—two black market “brands” cited in the epidemic that aren’t tied to companies but are merely packaging that can be bought by the boxload and stuffed with anything by anyone willing to part with a few pennies.
On the other hand, the incident involving Kushy Punch, a very real, licensed California cannabis manufacturer, has been an untimely black eye for the industry. In October, state officials raided a warehouse near Los Angeles and seized millions of dollars’ worth of illegal, untested Kushy Punch–branded vapes and edibles allegedly made by the company, raising the specter of legal, above-table brands’ capacity for double-dealing. Elsewhere in the state, legal brands are spending millions on packaging redesigns to stay one step ahead of counterfeit copycats.
“You have a whole bunch of people who came into the industry who don’t have experience with chemistry and formulating drugs correctly, and they’re just making really bad assumptions that they can add ingredients that they really shouldn’t be adding,” Kahn says. “It’s incorrect, it’s unfortunate, and it’s happening because it’s just not a well regulated industry.”
Kim was freaking out. Her second surrogate child was on the way, and she craved some serious chill. Thus, the idea for a CBD-themed baby shower was born.
“Let’s zen out for a Saturday,” she said, clad in breezy taupe and surrounded by yoga mats, sound bowls, and a gong. Kris, Kourtney and Paris looked on. “So everyone have a puff and put on some oil.”
Suffice it to say, CBD—used by roughly 1 in 7 Americans—has found plenty of believers. Touted as a treatment for a wide range of ailments, from anxiety and insomnia to chronic pain and inflammation, it’s predicted to rake in some $5 billion in sales by year’s end—inspiring a slew of new products that grows weirder by the day.
“There’s always gonna be, like, Carls Jr. putting CBD in burgers, and people are gonna throw it in toothpaste and mouthwash,” says Manna Molecular CEO Nial DeMena. “It’s just gonna be, ‘put it in first, ask questions later,’ and I think that attitude is the exact wrong tact to take.”
CBD, or cannabidiol, is one of more than 100 compounds found in the cannabis plant. Unlike its cousin, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), it’s nonpyschoactive, meaning there’s no “high” involved. Still, its piecemeal state-by-state legal status has made it a magnet for shady players, shoddy products and dubious claims.
“I just don’t wanna see CBD go the snake oil route when there’s so much research yet to be done,” says Adam Terry, a biochemical engineer and senior manager of product development at Integrative Health Products, which develops and distributes THC and CBD products nationally.
Next time you’re in the market for CBD anything, keep these tips in mind to ensure you’re getting a quality product that’s safe.
Things to know before buying CBD:
Know thyself. Do some soul searching and be inquisitive with your dispensary: What do you need it to do for you? How does it affect people who are like you? How much do people normally take of this? Naturally, avoid your problem areas. (Of course, before trying CBD you should talk to your doctor, especially if you’re taking any medication.)
Find out where and how the plants were grown. State laws on plant cultivation vary widely—some have none at all. And looser laws in places such as China, a common supplier of CBD-producing hemp, present even more of a risk. “For all we know they’re growing hemp on radiation,” Terry says. “We’re not gonna see that in a test, because we’re not looking for it.”
Ask for test results. The unregulated, Wild West nature of the industry means labels can mislead, so seek out companies who have their products rigorously tested. A certificate of analysis, or COA, will tell you how much CBD and THC is in the product. (Even better: a COA done by a third party.) Be sure the COA also includes “full panel” tests for contaminants such as heavy metals, mold, mildews, pesticides, and microorganisms—especially important if it’s not a state-run or state-licensed dispensary that grows cannabis, Terry says. “The person handing it to you should be able to tell you what farm that grew on and the license number it grew under,” Terry says. “If they don’t seem like they know what they’re talking about, walk away.”
Verifying the product’s potency, isn’t just a good idea for your wallet, DeMena says. Because of CBD’s low bioavailability by default—edibles hover between 6% and 20%—users may be inclined to dose themselves many times over to get their desired effect, which is not only expensive, but floods the body with various outside agents could have long-term effects that are too early to know about.
“People think, ‘Oh, Vitamin D is good for you, so let me take 50,000mg of Vitamin D every day.’ Well, that can cause liver damage, kidney damage, and you’re pissing out 99% of that,” DeMena says, “so it is a big deal in terms of bioaccumulation and overall health.”
Consistent, extreme dosages over a period of time can also have a diminishing effect, as the body adapts by reducing the number of receptors for the drug in response. The solution, DeMena says, is to aim for products with high efficacy in the first place.
Quality aside, results will also depend on the delivery route, each of which varies in absorption rate and duration, and may act locally or throughout the body.
Most topicals, such as lotions, salves, and balms, will only work on the area applied—great for, say, a sore knee. As with most skincare products, this field is littered with duds, so try to finagle a sample before buying. Transdermal products, which can include patches, mean that the drug travels through the skin and is absorbed into the bloodstream, resulting in higher absorption, plus you’ll feel it all over.
Vaping and smoking are the fastest-acting and most potent option short of a needle injection. But because high-concentrate CBD tends to crystallize, CBD vape oils are often cut with diluents to maintain a fluid consistency, some of which can be harmful. “There’s no proof by anyone that there’s anything safe to inhale that is not air,” Terry says. “So vape and smoke at your own caution.”
As for tinctures, whether drops or sprays, be sure to find out whether it’s meant to be swallowed or held under the tongue to be absorbed (what’s known as a sublingual, which is faster-acting). “A lot of people selling tinctures don’t specify which way, and that’s because they don’t really know,” DeMena says. “It’s because the company selling the product doesn’t even really care to think about that—they just want you to buy it.”
Other edibles, such as gummies, capsules and beverages, take longer to start working (30 minutes or more) and are generally less effective but last longer. The metabolization of these compounds changes their chemical formulations, and there’s not enough research yet to know the full scope of how they interact with the body.
Connoisseurs might enjoy exploring the finer points, such as whether the CBD extract is pure (isolate) or contains other compounds found in the plant (full- or broad-spectrum), which some find to complement or enhance the CBD—what’s known as the “entourage effect.” Just how much these and other aspects play a role is, for now, largely a matter of perception.
“Placebo effect can have its own benefits,” Terry says. “As long as someone thinks it’s working and feels it’s working, then, for them, it’s working.” Believe it or not, it’s a powerful thing.
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