California Weed

Curious about legal pot? Here’s how the industry is preparing for new users

If it weren’t for the storage room packed with bins of dried marijuana, a novice visitor to the BAS Research Center might have no idea this is a pot processing factory – California’s first locally licensed manufacturer of cannabis concentrates.

In a facility housing stainless steel canisters and carbon dioxide tanks, workers in hazmat suits deliver pounds of olive green powder, the ground-up raw plant matter, to be fed into a complicated mass of computer-monitored machinery.

Employees extract crystalline oils from the powder to produce resins that ooze like peanut butter. That resin is taken to a second lab where white-coated scientists oversee the next refining steps, which involve round glass flasks filling with thinner, syrupy fluids.

The industrial production ultimately results in Douglas Chloupek, BAS Research’s chief operating officer, holding aloft a Mason jar of a liquid resembling an amber ale with a gilded head.

“See this yellow color, that very, very pretty yellow that’s right here on the top,” Chloupek says. “This is a double distillate, pure cannabis oil ... testing at 80 percent potency. This is used for vaping, capsules, cooking, any number of processes.”

As Nov. 8 approaches and California voters consider legalizing marijuana for recreational use, the scene at the BAS Research Center underscores another factor worth pondering: Pot has evolved well beyond the hand-rolled joints of the ’70 and ’80s.

Demand from medical marijuana users for cannabis concentrates – including inhalable hash oils and super potent waxes called “dabs” – is booming. Specialized kitchens churn out THC infused-edibles, from savory chocolates to salsas, that can deliver mind-swirling highs that may extend hours after digestion, depending on how much one eats.

Consumer appetite for these powerful products is expected to grow even more should Proposition 64 pass. Concentrate manufacturers in California are gearing up for a potential crush of new customers, who might be unfamiliar with some of these alternative forms and require instruction about how to use them safely and responsibly.

New pot businesses have been springing up under medical marijuana licensing rules signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown last year. The operator of a San Jose dispensary, Chloupek and partners invested millions of dollars in the 7,000-square-foot Berkeley processing center licensed by the city in June. BAS Research produces concentrates for numerous marijuana foods kitchens and product manufacturers as well as for marijuana stores that sell the oils directly to consumers.

It is a big business. A single jar of processed concentrate, such as the one in Chloupek’s hands, can hold 700,000 milligrams of 80 percent-pure THC, pot’s psychoactive ingredient.

That’s worth $18,000 wholesale or $36,000 retail. It is enough to infuse 7,000 marijuana brownies with 100 milligrams of THC each, which can be a fear-inducing dose for an inexperienced consumer who devours one whole. It is enough to fill 1,400 500mg cartridges for increasingly popular hash oil vaporizer pens – which deliver small, metered puffs and may someday make the old-fashion marijuana joint obsolete.

“Apparently vaping is the future,” said Ngaio Bealum, a Sacramento marijuana culture writer and comedian who appears on a Cannabis Radio show called Rollin’ With Ngaio. “Everyone loves the vaporizer pen. It’s just convenient and not as stinky as the (marijuana) flower. I don’t feel it gives you the same high as regular marijuana but people love it. But a ‘dab’ is just a giant hit of THC ... the hard liquor of the marijuana world.”

The new generation of marijuana processors is emerging as states with legal marijuana use confront issues of product potency and consumer safety.

Colorado set packaging and labeling rules as well as a cap of 100 milligrams total THC per marijuana edible, labeled in squares of 10 milligrams, after an increase in emergency room visits involving children who ate cannabis treats and tourists who overindulged during visits to the state. Oregon has gone a step further with a 50 milligrams per-edible limit and 5 milligram pieces.

Proposition 64 would allow individuals to possess an ounce of dried marijuana or 8 grams of concentrate. It would require that foods – measured by weight of marijuana ingredients – be labeled in pieces of 10 milligrams or less. But California has no overall potency limits for products and none are specified in the initiative, which allows the state Department of Public Health to impose additional standards.

For now, a giant billboard rising above Interstate 80 in Oakland reads: “Unrivaled Potency.”

It is an advertisement for chocolate bars produced by an Oakland company, Korova Edibles, which markets confections including a 3.5-ounce bar with a whopping 1,000 milligrams of THC, which even the most serious medicinal users could ration over weeks, if not months.

But other producers, including a leading California edibles manufacturer, Oakland’s Kiva Confections, and an upstart company, hmbdlt, which sells vaporizer pens with cannabis concentrates made from Humboldt County-grown pot, are pitching a different experience.

They’re marketing “micro-dosing,” gearing products toward new consumers who want to relax with marijuana without intoxication.

Cannabis industry officials say the new mantra is about safety and sensible use. It is also about extending the market to new consumers.

“What they found in Colorado is that it is the lowest dose products that flew off the shelf,” said Nate Bradley, executive director of the California Cannabis Industry Association. “The reality is the industry will go where the market is. And the market is Coors Light and not grain alcohol.”

Evolving edibles

At the Kiva Confections’ corporate offices and factory, tucked into a sprawling warehouse district near Oakland International Airport, no on-site consumption is permitted – no matter how delectable the products may appear.

“Just because you work in a brewery doesn’t mean you can walk around drunk,” says Kristi Knoblich, 30, a former wedding photographer who co-founded the company in 2010 with husband and fellow photographer Scott Palmer, also 30.

The scent of cannabis is prevalent at their offices, floating through the accounting department and the sales and marketing divisions for the 70-employee firm, which provides edibles to 950 California medical marijuana stores and delivery services. However, other smells take over upon entering the factory, where a giant tank of water-chilled hashish extract stands near processing rooms containing sweeter ingredients: chocolate, blueberries, coffee and mint.

Kiva Confections generates more than $10 million in annual sales in California. It also is branding Kiva products through partnerships with manufacturers in Arizona and Nevada, with plans to expand to Colorado, Illinois and Oregon (though no product crosses state lines as marijuana remains illegal under federal law).

“We’re doing well,” Knoblich says. “It turns out that people like pot and chocolate. Who knew?”

Kiva Confections’ most potent treats – chocolate bars flavored with ginger, tangerine, blackberry and Irish cream – total 180 milligrams of THC, with breakable pieces of 45 milligrams. Other full-sized bars have lower doses, 60 milligrams total and 15 per piece.

Knoblich says the company is now banking its growth on products promising progressively reduced psychoactive effects: chocolate-covered blueberries and espresso beans with 5 milligrams each – generally well less than a toke on a joint – and sugar-free mints with just 2.5 milligrams.

It is a calculated marketing strategy in response to stories of people in legal marijuana states hallucinating or suffering panic attacks from consuming larger marijuana edible portions than they can handle. Unlike the near instant effects of smoking marijuana, the full impact of pot in food takes up to two hours to materialize and lasts much longer.

With treats branded with pot leaf logos and packaged with dosing labels and warnings to keep them out of reach of children, Knoblich says Kiva hopes to send a message: “Be slow. Be patient. Find your milligram level.”

“Micro-dosing is really about consuming the least amount of cannabis while getting the benefits. It’s finding the perfect equilibrium,” Knoblich says. “If recreational use goes on line, you’re going to see a more casual, curious consumer. We want to reach them with products that aren’t going to scare them.”

There are reasons to be wary. In Colorado, a visiting college student from Wyoming died in 2014 when he jumped from a Denver balcony while high from wolfing down a cannabis cookie. The death stirred fears over the impacts of readily available marijuana, particularly hard-to-predict edibles and high-octane concentrates, legalized for recreational use in 2012.

“There needs to be a lot of education,” said Dr. G. Sam Wang, a pediatric emergency room physician and medical toxicologist at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora. “There are a lot of unintended consequences (to recreational legalization) and a lot of unexpected things that have come up. ... It’s a lot more than just legalizing a joint.”

Wang was a researcher in a study published in JAMA Pediatrics in July. It noted that emergency room and poison control center visits in Colorado nearly doubled from 32 kids who had consumed pot edibles in 2013 – the year before recreational marijuana stores opened – to 63 in 2015. They had symptoms including dizziness, agitation, vomiting, respiratory problems and seizures.

In 2015, overall pot-related emergency room visits for kids in Colorado averaged just 2.3 cases per 100,000, meaning that vastly larger numbers of children were being admitted for exposure to pharmaceuticals and more common household products. But state officials also expressed worries about another study, on higher rates for cannabis-related emergency room cases among adults, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in February.

That study, by University of Colorado medical researchers and the Colorado Department of Public Health, noted that a disproportionate number of hospital visits were for visitors from out of state. The rate of pot-affected tourists jumped from 85 cases per 10,000 total emergency room visits in 2013 to 168 in 2014, the first year of recreational sales.

The researchers concluded: “These data underscore the importance of point-of-sale education for visitors regarding the safe and appropriate use of marijuana products.”

A single dab

At the Magnolia Wellness Center medical marijuana dispensary in Oakland, operator Debby Goldsberry and her staff plan to serve as “peer counselors” for people trying new cannabis products.

Magnolia Wellness is stocked with selections of California-grown marijuana buds, from mellow-strength Sun Grown Jahgoo Diesel at 13.8 percent THC to bred-for-potency “THC Bomb” at 26.1 percent. But Goldsberry, a veteran activist who worked for the passage of California’s 1996 medical marijuana law, says today’s consumers generally know how to handle different strengths of dried pot in joints, vaporizers, pipes and bongs.

Soon, Magnolia Wellness, under a permit from the city, is going to open a vaporizer lounge and edibles kitchen. Dispensary staff will explain how to safely use marijuana foods and operate vaporizer pens for cannabis oils. They’ll also set up on-site “dab rigs” for people consuming concentrates packing THC levels of 50 to 90 percent.

Dabs – cannabis honey oil or crumbly waxes – are often consumed after being heated with a butane flame. A “dabbing spoon” is used to place a gooey drop of the hot compound into an intricately shaped glass pipe, from which fumes are ingested. A single dab of some concentrates can deliver a medicinal effect worthy of a full joint.

Bealum, the Sacramento pot culture personality, said many consumers enjoy the potency of dabs as well as their heavy concentration of terpenes, molecules that give pot its taste and smell. He advices caution for users. “They can put you on your ass,” he said.

Goldsberry said her dispensary is going to set up electric-powered consumption rigs – with no open flames – and instruct people on not overdoing it. “We want to teach them to use the technology and know how to properly dose with these super concentrate forms of cannabis,” she explained. “This is a place where people will come to experience. And they will need to ask questions.”

Education on consumption also is part of the campaign of a new company, hmbdlt, whose Humboldt-harvested marijuana is processed into concentrates at BAS Research in Berkeley. In September, the company announced a new line of cannabis oil vaporizer pens – called “Bliss,” “Sleep,” “Calm” and Relief” – with a promise of providing “safe, targeted and effective cannabis-based solutions.”

Bliss, the most powerful hmbdlt concentrate, registers a THC level of 66 percent. Its cannabis oil composition is similar to dabs. But consumption is vastly different, delivered in puffs from a battery-powered pen with doses strictly controlled. A hmbdlt pen, which holds a 500-milligram capsule for sustained use, promises a limit of 2.25 milligrams of THC oil per three-second puff.

“A little vibration tells you the dose is complete and then it stops,” said Samantha Miller, operator of a Sonoma County medical marijuana testing lab and humblt’s chief science officer.

While Miller said the pen can be reactivated for continued consumption, the mechanics of the device, designed for pot consumers “on the go,” reflect a message of not over-indulging.

“What you’re seeing is an evolution of the marketplace,” she said. “There are people who want to use cannabis and not be overly intoxicated, who understand that cannabis is not a drug culture thing. This gives them the opportunity to choose the experience they want.”

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