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A wide variety of products sold at various price points in the fledgling edible-cannabis market can make it difficult for consumers to know how and where to buy from, and what companies to trust.

Part of Cannabis and consumers

Smoking cannabis will always be around – at least in the fashion of vinyl, a format reserved for nostalgic, die-hard aficionados, ever ready to tell you why analog is superior. But once it becomes legal in Canada on Oct. 17, there will be many new consumers, such as retirement-age baby boomers looking for sleep aids and pain relief, who do not want to inhale smoke. Enter edibles.

“Edible sales have outpaced growth in flower,” says Greg Shoenfeld, vice-president of operations for BDS Analytics, using the industry term for dried marijuana buds. Since 2014, when recreational marijuana became legal in Colorado, flower has dropped to 45 per cent from 60 per cent of the $1.5-billion (U.S.) market, according to BDS. It’s still the largest sector, followed by concentrates (derivatives such as oil and vape products) at 30 per cent, edibles at 15 per cent and pre-rolled joints at 6 per cent.

We don’t know precisely what federal legislation will look like. And it will be up to each province to decide how edibles will be sold at the retail level. But plenty of Canadians are not waiting; it’s already relatively easy to buy them online.

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A stream of edible-adjacent products such as drink or baking kits such as Dynamix, Retreatibles, Canedibles, which require the consumer to add the active ingredients, have already elbowed their way into the market. And a simple Google search reveals multiple online marketplaces where you can buy gummy worms, sour keys, black licorice, cookies, brownies and so on, dosed in ranges of five to 200 milligrams of THC, the main psychoactive component of cannabis.

An appropriate dosage is as subjective as what constitutes a portion of alcohol or steak or salad, the effects dependent on an individual’s physiology and, in the end, is entirely unpredictable. But I can say with absolute certainty that 200 milligrams is a monstrous amount of THC.

So what is a reasonable dose? For some, starting with five milligrams is already too much. Others won’t feel anything at all.

The trick to edibles, as a friend perfectly summed it up, is to consume one-thousandth of what would be considered a portion of food.

It usually takes 30 to 40 minutes to feel any effects, but it can take as much as two hours. So new users are advised to be patient with their first experience and avoid doubling up.

Then there are the issues of what kind of edible to buy, from whom and how to be certain of what’s inside.

A hundred years ago, kosher food was in a similar place. From town to town, rabbi to rabbi, household to household, there was no universal standard. Eventually, the various certification agencies distilled into a half dozen that today oversee standards for kosher-food manufacturing in North America.

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Edibles, a product that must meet standards for both food and drug manufacturing, are at the dawn of that same process. Operations such as the Craft Cannabis Association of BC and CannabisWise are angling to become that future certification body for marijuana and related products. But there’s not much they can do before legalization, and Health Canada will remain the ultimate authority.

“The biggest problem for consumers,” says Lisa Campbell, cannabis portfolio specialist for Lifford Wine & Spirits, focusing on licensing craft cannabis products and bringing them to market, “is they might eat an edible one day and have a certain effect and the next day they’ll eat the same edible and it’ll be super intense.”

This is a too-common problem in an underground market with no transparency. No one has ever ordered a pastrami on rye only to be surprised by a sandwich containing four pounds of meat. But everyone knows at least one person with a horror story about trying an edible that proved way too strong.

“Certain edible makers will actually put extra THC in their products,” Campbell says. “They think that’s what consumers are looking for – the thing that’s going to get them the highest. But I think consumers are looking for something that is standardized and reliable so they can accurately measure their dose.”

Currently, a consumer has little way of knowing or trusting how these products are made or if they are produced with pesticide-grown marijuana. If you are looking to minimize risk, only buy edibles made with lab-tested extracts.

“Many of these underground edible brands are on Instagram, so consumers could send them a direct message and ask them to send a screen shot of lab sheets before purchase,” Campbell says. “That being said, you could send the same product to three labs and get three different results, so there still needs to be more standardization of testing.”

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More than pesticides or impurities, consumers are concerned about accurate dosing. THC extraction has evolved from the days of pot simmered in butter to much more refined processes involving solvents and vacuum ovens. Still, some edible makers are just baking cookies and then using an eye dropper to apply extract, which is not only imprecise but based on the assumption that someone’s going to eat the entire cookie, through which the THC is unevenly dispersed. So if you’re a first-time user trying to eat half of a five-milligram THC cookie, good luck. “Which is why we don’t deal with baked goods,” says Riley Starr, founder of EP Infusions. “You can’t assure that level of homogeneity.”

In an industry with an evolving, improvised approach to self-regulation, Starr chose to build his brand on beverages and chocolate, products he is able to consistently control.

“I was a brewer for six years,” he says. “So I understand the processes of beverage production, hygiene and perishability. And then I also chose chocolate because it’s very shelf-stable.

The other advantage to chocolate bars is that the format divides neatly. Using the familiar grid pattern of a Caramilk bar, each EP Infusions square snaps off easily and contains five milligrams of THC (the ornate packaging of silkscreened Japanese paper now includes dosage suggestions for first-time users).

The advantage to edibles in chocolate bar form is that the format divides neatly, allowing consumers to easily choose an appropriate dosage.

Like many entrepreneurs in this currently underground economy, Starr is not waiting to expand his business. If he hopes to supply the demand when edibles become legal, he needs to scale up production, which requires both capital and access to a guaranteed source of legally produced cannabis extract. So he has been meeting with licensed producers, looking to partner the strength of his brand and expertise beside someone with a coherent strategy for the edible market. In the meantime, he is attempting to be as above board as possible, using lab-tested extracts, reporting his full income to Revenue Canada, including payroll taxes for two employees, hoping no one will decide to prosecute him in the interim. The risk is high. But a foothold in the emerging market could be worth it.

“Edibles enjoy a position where they are branded products, able to be positioned as premium products,” BDS Analytics’ Shoenfeld says, adding that prices for marijuana flower, seen as a commodity, have been dropping.

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If you’ve ever been inside a Sephora cosmetics store, you know that slick packaging can elicit exponentially greater prices for something you could buy at a pharmacy. And that will be the challenge for edible makers in 2019: positioning themselves as luxury brands. But between now and then, they’ve got to concentrate on making consumers feel safe.

“Soon most of these products will be regulated by Health Canada,” Campbell says. “So in the future all processing facilities will have to have lab sheets to submit products for sale. Until we legalize cannabis in all of its forms, it will be hard to have standardized quality control that ensures consumer safety.”

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