Medical marijuana: 'Medibles' industry thrives, lacks safety regulations
From burritos to cotton candy, pulled pork to cola, cannabis-infused "medibles" are the rage in the medical marijuana industry. But no one is checking how the products are made or how safe they are.
Seattle Times staff reporter
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The kitchen in the weather-beaten beachfront cabin near Olympia is cramped and freckled with mysterious brown stains. A shaggy dog named Butter is poking around, and a quarter-sized spider dangles at the window.
It's not the best situation, Jim Chaney acknowledges, for a home-based business making marijuana-infused products, called "medibles."
But in Washington's scantily regulated medical-marijuana industry, no one is checking how such food and drink products are made, or how safe they are.
And there's a lot to check.
A dizzying array of cannabis-infused products — from taco mix to cotton candy, from pulled pork to carbonated colas — have begun showing up in the past two years on the shelves at storefront marijuana dispensaries.
Medibles are the fastest-growing segment of Washington's fast-growing medical-marijuana industry. Their wares represent perhaps a third of sales at storefront dispensaries.
And business could really take off if voters in November approve Initiative 502. The measure would legalize marijuana sales for recreational use and create state-licensed marijuana stores that presumably would carry a variety of cannabis-infused food and drink. Those products are seen as a tastier, more healthful alternative to smoking, in which dosages of THC can be more exact, and more appealing to older users.
But for now, medibles producers operate even more underground than dispensaries. And even though they make food, no one is inspecting them because state officials defer to the federal ban on marijuana.
That frustrates Chaney. He has bounced among four production sites, most recently losing a commercial kitchen in Seattle when his landlord in August got a cease-and-desist letter from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and shut down.
In legal ambiguity, some medibles entrepreneurs try to police themselves, paying for testing at special medical-marijuana labs.
Even with such tests, Chaney and others in the industry are nervous that a patient will get sick, or overdose on a supercharged product coming from a grungy kitchen.
"You have people making products that are not regulated in any way, with no instructions for how to be stored, no expiration date," said Chaney, 27, who has produced infused chai-flavored drinks and capsules under the name Dream Cream. "The state is just failing to do any kind of quality health inspection."
No state rules
Washington in 1998 became one of the first states to legalize medical marijuana, long before the emergence of storefront dispensaries or medibles.
Since they've arrived, state law hasn't kept up. A 2011 bill, passed by the Legislature, would have regulated medibles, requiring including licenses, kitchen inspections and independent quality testing. Gov. Chris Gregoire vetoed most of it, saying inspections opened state employees to federal jeopardy.
Because federal law defines marijuana as a Schedule I drug, with no medical value, cannabis-infused foods are considered "adulterated" — or unsafe — products under federal food-safety codes.
Other medical-marijuana states, including Colorado and Arizona, essentially ignore federal law and require inspections of medibles producers. But absent a state law here requiring them, the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA), which oversees wholesale kitchens, follows federal guidelines.
"Food products containing marijuana therefore fall outside WSDA jurisdiction because they aren't legal commercial products," said agency spokesman Jason Kelly.
Public Health — Seattle & King County, which inspects retail kitchens, also balks. "Certainly we want to assure the food safety across the county, but the circumstances are a little unclear in this situation," said spokeswoman Hilary Karasz.
State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, sponsor of the 2011 bill, may try again, depending on the election outcome in November.
"That entrepreneurial spirit won't go away. There has to be some regulatory standards," she said.
Soda with a punch
That spirit — and a good idea — hit Tim Mains and his sister last year: medicated mints.
Rebecca Mains, who works in an upscale Seattle restaurant, experimented before settling on a recipe involving cannabis extract, that appeals to a more affluent niche of the medical-marijuana market, her brother said.
"You know exactly what you're getting when you eat one," said Tim Mains, a 29-year-old whose job history includes making T-shirts for fraternities and poker players. "So your first experience isn't overpowering and scary, it's mellow and pleasant."
They manufacture in a friend's commercial kitchen, and debuted Mary Jane Mints at this year's Hempfest. Medibles, he said, "is going to be the next big thing."
But it's not an easy business. Many commercial kitchens won't rent to medibles. And it remains risky, as evidenced by the recent DEA crackdown.
"Technically what I'm doing is manufacturing a controlled substance," sighed Matt, 27, owner of soda maker Pack A Punch. For that reason, he didn't want his name used.
One of the more successful medibles makers — tattoos across his knuckles read "SELF MADE" — Matt was among the first to list ingredients and design a flashy label. A bottle, he said, contains 21 mg of active THC and costs about $9.
He and his six employees, all with food-handler permits, crank out about 15 cases of soda and 300 chocolate bars a month from the kitchen of his friend's bar, after closing time.
Matt said he is a stickler for quality control and hygiene, even if no one is checking, for a good reason: "If someone gets sick from a soda, why would they want another?"
The closest thing to quality control in the medical-marijuana industry is the handful of local laboratories testing marijuana.
They, too, work without state inspections, but look and feel like small biotech startups, spending $100,000 or more to launch.
Their tests — about $50 per sample, using varying methods — provide results for six different chemical compounds — or "cannabinoids" — in marijuana, and can look for mold or pesticides, although those tests aren't popular.
Growers, dispensaries and medibles makers are the customers, and display test results on the packaging like a seal of approval — so long as they're positive results.
Testing is particularly critical for medibles, said Klaas Hesselink, founder of CannaTest on Bainbridge.
Otherwise, "it's throwing a handful of pills into the air, opening your mouth, and seeing what falls in," he said.
The test for THC — the magic cannabinoid — is most popular; a finding of 21 percent can jack the per-pound price by $400. Other compounds, including those that provide pain relief without a high, are increasingly coveted among growers.
Labs can also serve as marijuana's Consumer Reports. One lab, Analytical 360, based in Wallingford, published a test result in April showing an apple-flavored soda, supposedly chock-full of THC, had only trace amounts.
Alex Prindle, a restaurateur who co-founded Northwest Botanical Analysis in Fremont, sees testing as a sign that the medical marijuana is maturing. "As more people test, the quality will go up."
And it's overdue, especially in the unregulated medibles. "This is a product that's coming from some guy's basement, and it's being given to a cancer patient," said Prindle.
A small group, including medibles makers and testing labs, are making the move to self-regulate. Guidelines from the group, the Coalition for Cannabis Standards and Ethics, include business basics: Pay all taxes. Get food-handler permits. Follow Food and Drug Administration labeling standards. Don't produce anything requiring refrigeration, or hot handling, in a personal kitchen.
Those standards, however, are voluntary, not widely followed, and they don't provide any legal protection from state prosecution, let alone federal charges.
Ironically, that has likely helped dissuade bigger medibles manufacturers, from California or Colorado from moving in. Tripp Keber, managing director of Dixie Elixirs & Edibles, Colorado's largest medibles manufacturer, said Washington is an attractive market, but its laws are too loose to justify investment. "I'm not going to risk breaking the rules in Washington and putting the mothership at risk," said Keber.
Chaney, of Dream Cream, is also leery. He said he asked state agriculture and county health officials about inspection. Neither would provide guidance, let alone inspections.
After losing access to the commercial kitchen in Seattle, he has stopped making cannabis-infused drinks, which require refrigeration. In his beach cabin, Chaney focuses on capsules made from a coconut-oil cannabis extract.
Like other medibles manufacturers, and testing-lab owners, Chaney wonders about what he sees on dispensary shelves, including a burrito with no label showing ingredients or an expiration date.
"It's ridiculous. You don't go into a pharmacy and get a burrito," said Chaney. "The food stuff can get absurd. It shows the holes in the medical-cannabis law."
Staff reporter Maureen O'Hagan contributed to this report. Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jmartin206.