Why pot-infused foods are still miles behind marijuana flower when it comes to predicting the desired energy and creativity
When buying marijuana flower at a dispensary, it’s not difficult to find something tailor-made for your needs: Sativas for energy and focus, indicas for pain relief and sleep, hybrids for something in between.
Try out the same formula for pot-infused edibles, and your options are (for the most part) only distinguished by flavor, with nothing said about how it will treat you. The truth is, cannabis food is still miles behind flower when it comes to predicting what kind of effect it will deliver.
And at a time when edibles are under such heavy scrutiny for causing unexpected freak-outs and alleged connections to suicides and murder, experts say there is now more of a need than ever before for manufacturers, regulators and especially users to educate themselves about this alternative method of ingesting cannabis.
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While the iconic pot-brownie has been around since the ’60s, that form of cannabis food was typically created via the D.I.Y. method of cooking pot into butter and then infusing that butter into a snack-cake. Most edibles on the shelves today are made using highly sophisticated instruments that employ CO2 or butane to extract the cannabinoids from the plant material, a process that is still in its infancy and isn’t without its critics. And no matter how it’s made, the resulting substances themselves haven’t enjoyed nearly the same amount of scientific, peer-reviewed studies that smokable marijuana has.
Edibles have also unexpectedly become the marijuana of choice for novices looking to experiment with cannabis, and the cookies, candies and sodas they are swallowing are often made by companies looking to make a product quick, cheap and with little aim other than delivering maximum intoxication.
In attempting to unravel the cat’s cradle of edibles, we spoke with edible manufacturers and cannabis scientists who gave us their at-times-conflicting perspectives on why so many edibles are generic hybrids — as opposed to specific indicas or sativas — and why it is so difficult to create a product with a consistent, predictable effect.
It’s a profoundly complicated situation, so for your convenience we’ve broken it all down into this handy and readable list — Five legit reasons why an edible’s high is so very unpredictable.
1. Edibles are very different than smoked flower
With marijuana quickly becoming a popular recreational option for residents and those visiting Colorado (and other states with adult-use pot), many consumers are looking for a way to ingest cannabis without smoking it. Edibles are attractive to so many novices for this reason — the idea being that they are simply an orally consumed version of marijuana flower.
But we are quickly learning that the two substances are merely cousins of one another, not identical twins.
Tetrahydrocannabidinol, or THC, is the most popular nine-syllable word in a stoner’s vocabulary. THC is the cannabinoid that gets you high, but there are others, like cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabinol (CBN), which also impact how you feel when you consume marijuana. When the flame of a lighter ignites a bowl, the psychoactive material of the pot is decarboxylated, turning it into a smoke that goes directly into the bloodstream via the lungs.
But with edibles, the plant material has already been decarboxylated via the extraction process that helped make the edibles — long before you the consumer eat it. Depending on how it’s extracted, that process can have the potential to change the chemical makeup of the substance in a way that simply putting a flame to it doesn’t.
And when the cannabis travels into the stomach, instead of the lungs, the detour changes it even further.
“The main biological difference is that cannabinoids consumed in edible form go through ‘first pass metabolism,’ which means they pass through the liver,” says Kent Hutchison, a neuroscience professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Center For Health and Addiction.
Hutchison says that when you smoke pot, you’re getting more of the cannabinoids into your blood, and you’re getting them a lot quicker than you would with edibles. And with edibles there is a larger variance of effect from one person to another based on their biological makeup.
There is also this issue: Marijuana that is engineered for a specific effect is done so with smoking in mind, and there is debate as to whether those characteristics even make it into the edibles.
“That’s an important point that I think a lot of people miss,” says Ryan Lynch, who recently completed his Ph.D. in the ecology and evolutionary biology of cannabis at CU-Boulder. “It’s not just the THC or CBD, but many compounds of the plant tissue that create an effect. And the question is: Do those make it downstream through the extraction techniques at the same ratio that they do in the flower? And that’s definitely an open question at the moment.”
2. Most edible manufacturers don’t separate their trim
With a few exceptions, marijuana is typically manufactured with smokable flower in mind, and it’s usually the leftovers of the plant that are sold to make edibles.
In the past, the flimsy leaves surrounding a marijuana plant — known in the industry as trim — were often discarded because of their low THC content. But with the rise of commercial-scale grow operations, trim became a cost-effective product that could be sold to edibles manufacturers, still leaving the flower to sell to those who prefer smoking and vaporizing. When edibles companies get their wholesale trim, it’s often purchased from multiple growers who bag up their remnants (indica, sativa and hybrid) without attention to grouping it by type.
“Most edible companies generally don’t separate the indica (trim) from the sativa,” says Max Montrose, who used to work as a courier of trim between growers and edible manufacturers. “And even if they did separate their trim, it’s possible that the trim could be reintroduced into other mixed trim. So it’s a smorgasbord.”
This is another reason why it’s so difficult to find an edible product that advertises a specific, desired effect, since a majority of them are assembled hot dog-style from a variety of different cannabis trim.
Shellene Suemori, science director for edibles company Dixie Elixirs, says it doesn’t make a huge difference if the cannabis material is separated by strain because the extraction process of turning the trim into a concentrated oil (that can then be easily cooked with) removes most of the plants’ unique characteristics anyway.
“You can take a high-grade sativa strain and process it, and then take a high-grade indica strain and process it, and both of those oils are going to look almost identical on the lab results page,” Suemori explains. “But if you sample those out to a consumer or a budtender, they may actually experience a difference in those because there are still some constituents left. But we can’t market that way, because the detection levels are too low. There’s no real way to maintain enough of a specificity in the oils to legitimately market that way.”
Suemori adds that there are ways to maintain plant characteristics that give you a specific high, but that “it’s much more time consuming, and not very likely in a high-volume edible company.”
It’s possible that one of the main elements of cannabis that dictates your high being sleepy, energetic or heady are terpenes, the microscopic bulbs of oil in the plant that give it its scent. Terpenes are not believed to be psychoactive themselves (though the science on this is not settled; more on that later), but they interact with the THC in various ways to produce a specific effect. The terpenes are likely what you’d need to preserve in the plant in order to maintain its properties as sativa, indica or a type of strain. Some edibles companies are artificially injecting terpenes like limonene into the oil used in their products to give it a desired effect, though Hutchison says that this often is not necessary if you’re careful about how you transform your trim into oil.
“To the extent that the extraction process collects all the cannabinoids and terpenes, then it will maintain the characteristics of the plant,” says Hutchison.
While the debate rages on over what extraction methods are sophisticated enough to get all the goodies out of the trim and into a serving of food, there are also those questioning if trim is even a good resource for creating edibles.
3. Low-quality material makes low-quality edibles
“A lot of the edibles now are not necessarily using high-quality plant materials. They’re just taking the trimmings and the lower-quality material from grow operations,” says Nolan Kane, an assistant professor of evolutionary biology at CU-Boulder who studies cannabis. “They extract with some kind of chemical solution where you can pull out all of the compounds, or just a subset of the compounds. You basically end up with very little of the terpenoids, mostly just THC at that point, maybe some CBD or other cannabinoids.”
Kane compares high- and low-quality marijuana edibles to fine-scotch and cheap vodka: You can make the vodka from potatoes or a variety of low-grade products: Just distill them down until it’s a booze that will get you drunk. But with fine scotch you need to start with high-quality grain and take great care with the process in order to preserve the characteristics of that grain.
“It’s basically the same with these edibles,” he says. “They’re extracted from essentially low-quality material but purified to a high level in order to make something good out of it. There is no question that different varieties of these plants contain different secondary compounds, and if you’re able to preserve those characteristics all the way through, you’re going to have more of the same effect as if you’d consumed that plant directly (through smoked flower).”
There is also the issue of how the trim is moved from the grower to the edible manufacturer, and how long it waits before being put through the extraction process.
“If it’s too wet you’re going to get mold, and if it’s too dry and sits there the THC slowly converts to CBN, which is going to be different,” says recent Ph.D. graduate Lynch.
Brooke Wise owns edibles company The Growing Kitchen, and she says she used to buy trim from other cultivations. But then she learned that the trim would often sit on the shelf for extended periods of time — allowing it to break down and degrade. And then she started finding “dog hair and rubber bands” mixed into the trim, which was at times found to be moldy.
That’s when she decided to grow her own cannabis and only use the marijuana flower for her edibles — never the trim.
“If anyone tries to tell you that trim is the same thing as the plant, you can look that up yourself: It’s not the same,” says Wise. “The cannabinoids that are rich and dense in the flower buds are clearly not the same. CBN is more readily available in the trim and sugar leaves than it is in the flower buds, which makes sense that some products make you anxious or paranoid, if you’re just stripping out the THC and you’re not given the opportunity to get the whole-plant experience. Other elements balance out the THC and keep you from getting too paranoid.
“You can’t take it apart and expect to have the same quality experience.”
Wise says that she’s heard complaints from customers about her products being stronger than advertised, but she explains that this is because these customers have become accustomed to eating someone else’s low-quality 80-milligram product — and when when they eat her 20-milligram product it’s too much. This, she asserts, is due to the purity of her cannabis and the interactions of it with specific food material.
While purchasing trim wholesale remains the predominant method of manufacturing edibles, the overwhelming popularity of edibles has often left companies scrambling to find enough trim to satisfy public demand, which has made growing your own an attracting option for edibles manufacturers.
“Purchasing trim is not necessarily a cheaper option in my opinion,” says Torrin Panico, who recently founded Craft, a Colorado-based edibles and concentrates company. “The initial cost of a garden is more expensive, yes, but the value you receive from producing edibles with your own, whole plant-extracted oil, or even your own trim, is gonna be way more effective than any trim you find on the market.
“This is because no one is going to sell their premium trim to you as an edible company these days, and if they do you will overpay because of the demand for concentrates in the market. Typically, as a wholesale trim purchaser, you are only left with options of using poor trim, machine trim, fan leaf or stuff that is riddled with PM (powdery mildew) or mites, which results in very poor-tasting oil and also not a very high-THC or -CBD count. You are at the mercy of all the different growers, resulting in different quality, which affects the outcome of your final product’s taste and potency, leaving you with no true consistency.”
Karin Lazarus, founder of edibles company Sweet Mary Jane, says that they’ve been purchasing their cannabis material wholesale for five years but have recently established their own garden.
“The prices for cannabis have fluctuated so much over the years, which has made it hard to figure our costs from one month to the next,” says Lazarus. “We now have our own grow, however we have not had our first harvest, so I really can’t say (what the cost/benefit will be). I will be able to within the next few months when we do our take down.”
4. The type of food in your edibles can be as important as the type of cannabis
“A lot of these edible companies are working with people who know a lot about cannabis, but aren’t necessarily chefs,” says Panico, a chef with 15 years experience who worked with The Growing Kitchen before starting Craft. “Knowing how to cook plays a large part in your final product; You need to understand the science of food, along with the science of cannabis, to be able to bring them together to make products that work for everyone.”
The Growing Kitchen’s Wise admits that the scientific data showing exactly how the type of food in an edible interacts with the cannabis is “probably 10 or 15 years” into the future but adds that “cannabis acts as a catalyst with other herbs, making (the edibles) significantly more powerful than any of those things by themselves,” she says. “It’s like how if you consume olive oil with tomatoes it helps your body absorb the nutrients, as opposed to if you were to consume those two things separately. When you mix omega oils and agave nectar and cannabis, the end result is incredibly different. We use spirulina — which is a blue-green algae that is incredible for energy and improving your mood — with our ‘Zoom Balls.’”
For some athletes, edible marijuana has become a popular aid to increase energy, focus and mood when working out. Naturally, not just any edible will do for this; You would not only need to find a product made with a type of cannabis that won’t put you into a state of couch-lock but also something that is mixed with a type of food that won’t drag you down.
“If you want to go workout you can mix the sativa oil into a trail-mix bar that helps to stimulate that part of your body, and then the sativa will carry it through,” says Panico. “With edibles it’s all about the carriers that go along with it. If you have an edible that’s really heavy with dense chocolate, like a brownie, even if you make it sativa, your body naturally is going to get more tired, because of how dense it is, than if you were eating something packed with nuts and honey.”
CU-Boulder’s Lynch adds: “There’s no question that your body takes longer to digest foods that are high in fat. The more food you eat, the more fiber and fat it contains, the longer it’s going to take to make it through your small intestine. But at this point we don’t even understand the plant itself completely, so when it comes to the interactions with all the other food in an edible, there isn’t a whole lot to go on right now.”
5. The science behind edibles is a generation behind flower
Throughout the number of interviews we conducted with scientists for this story, the most common response to the questions we asked was, “We don’t know that yet.” This wasn’t due to a lack of interest or curiosity in edibles; The scientific research on cannabis is still very restricted, and the idea of a public health crisis surrounding edibles was something few people saw coming.
“The rise of popularity of edibles is so recent, there’s been a limited amount of research I’ve seen on the metabolism of THC in edibles versus inhaled marijuana,” says Kane. “Most of what I’ve seen on the subject hasn’t even been published yet. Most of the industry is relying on anecdotal evidence. I’m sure a lot of the claims people are making are based on something, but it could be something flimsy or something substantial. People have been experimenting with marijuana formally and informally for a millennium, but in terms of rigorous scientific study, not a lot has been done.”
Clearly, there is a long road to be traveled before a budtender can point to a display of edibles and confidently say, “You can take this one for energy” or “Take that one to calm you down.” Even the amount of THC has become difficult to nail down, as testing methods vary from lab to lab. It’s possible that we may even be overestimating the significance of THC in whether an edible turns you into a zen-like Tommy Chong or a clawing-at-your-skin Maureen Dowd.
“The bottom line is that we know next to nothing about cannabis as it pertains to consumption and regulation in Colorado,” says Hutchison. “This is due in large part to our inability to conduct scientific studies on cannabis that is grown here in Colorado. Even with the bill that was introduced in Congress recently, research will still be limited to cannabis grown at the government facility in Mississippi. Until someone finds a way for scientists to conduct research on cannabis grown in Colorado and edibles made in Colorado, we are flying blind. In my mind, that fact is a huge disservice to the people of our state.”
In the years to come, we will surely see more published studies on how edibles work and how different they are from flower — not to mention the impact of extraction methods, the type of plant material used and the types of foods being infused.
Will we then be able to predict an edible’s effect on our bodies and minds? Time will tell.
It’s safe to say, the industry will only change if public demand moves it that way. So ask your budtender for some background information on the products you’re looking at. Does the manufacturer grow their own cannabis? Is this product made from trim or flower — and what kind of plant did it come from? What type of food is in the edible? Be specific about what type of effect you’re looking for, whether it be for pain management, creative energy or help with sleep.
And if your budtender answers, “I don’t know,” don’t give him or her a hard time about it. Because when it comes to edibles in the first half of 2015, there are plenty of “I don’t knows” to go around.