Here’s one portrait of cannabis in Canada in 2018: One of the most popular products on the illicit market can be found in a boutique design studio in downtown Toronto. There’s no password, no secret handshake, and you don’t need a medical license to purchase it.
Out in the open, in a bright and colourful space, are rows of chocolate bars infused with cannabis. They come in a range of tastes—including an all-cocoa butter white chocolate bar with organic Japanese matcha, a milk chocolate espresso bar with hand-cracked coffee beans, and an orange bar infused with natural citrus oil. Each bar is individually numbered and wrapped in delicate chiyogami paper imported from Japan.
“The product really stood out from an aesthetic standpoint,” says the owner of the design studio, who originally came across the chocolate bars at a Green Market event in Toronto. “It immediately shattered a lot of assumptions that we always have about anything cannabis-related. Not only is it pretty, not only does it taste good, but it works.”
The bars fit in seamlessly among the artisan objects and installations and curatorial projects inside the space. You can find throw pillows and credenzas and imported rugs and then craft cannabis chocolate bars. The bars are illegal, for now, but selling them openly offers an idea of what a reasonable cannabis future could someday look like. Such no-big-deal availability does some heavy lifting towards the normalization of these types of products.
“This isn’t a dark room somewhere. It’s under chandeliers, in a beautiful setting and we feel like our target markets align,” the studio owner says. “This puts it on a different platform, where it is stigma-free and accessible.”
The bars are lovingly made in Montreal by EP Infusions, a one-of-a-kind company in Canada’s craft cannabis scene that, for now, continues to operate illicitly.
“The kind of products I wanted to make didn’t look like anything on the underground market at the time, and still now,” says EP Infusion’s founder, who, like the boutique, is choosing to go unnamed.
“As much as I love cannabis, I never really felt like I associated with the trappings of the culture. Cannabis is something that I really enjoy, and it’s been part of a lot of important moments in my life and contributed to my appreciation of a lot of things, but the way that appreciation is expressed by other parts of the culture…that isn’t me, you know?”
Despite the success of the bars, and the dedication required to bring them to fruition, EP’s future remains precarious. The company and its products could soon be relegated to the sidelines, a relic of the once-bountiful grey market that was swallowed up and made sterile by legalization. Or maybe not.
“Our perspective is that we want to be a part of the legal market and will comply in any way that’s necessary to do that,” EP’s founder says. “The unfortunate thing that we’re seeing with the way this regime is rolling out is unless you have millions of dollars in investment behind you, you can’t really be a player.”
Which means they have to get creative. Selling their bars at a design studio is but one example.
“Every particular situation needs a thoughtful approach to minimize the risk, but the risk is always there,” EP’s founder says. But he believes it’s a risk worth taking. “I have an idea, I have a product, I have something I want to share with the world, and I’m just going to do it and I’m going to learn by doing it. It’s gotten us this far, for whatever that’s worth. By the strength of the product and the brand and the team, hopefully we’ll find our way to be a part of this future.”
From Craft Beer to Craft Cannabis
One of the most beautiful cannabis chocolate bars on the market started as a drink, at least in conception.
EP’s founder comes from a craft beer background, and his original inspiration was to create an infused beverage with teas and botanical flavors. But it’s much harder to infuse a beverage than a chocolate bar or baked goods.
“Those processes are pretty straightforward,” he says. “There are details that matter, focusing on consistency, reliable dosing, but those processes are well understood. With drinks, it’s a bit more tricky. You have to have an understanding of food science and figure it out with trial and error.”
There is also the challenge of production. Chocolate-making, with a little creativity, is scalable without requiring a new space. Beverages are different. “It really is how big are your tanks and how much room do you have to install them in, and how much capacity do you have to chill them,” says EP’s founder. So beverages have become a select offering, while the bars have become the flagship product. He suggests two reasons for this: aesthetics and practicality.
“A tricky thing with edibles is people have a wide range of tolerances. You have to be able to address everyone’s taste and dose sensitivity, and a chocolate bar works great for that. Someone with a high tolerance can eat half of it or the whole thing and get the experience that they want, whereas somebody else can have two or three squares at a time and really try and modulate that experience.”
This was always an intention with EP: making converts out of cannabis disbelievers, not just through the aesthetics and quality, but with reliable dosing. Each bar contains 120 milligrams of THC and 12 milligrams of CBD, save for the 50/50 bar, which is an equal 60-milligram split. A single square contains 5 mg of THC and .5mg of CBD. This allows for quick and easy dosing and creates a comfort and familiarity with the effects.
“So many people who encounter our products are either very casual users or just curious about cannabis, and I think there’s a lot of power in the first product that you interact with that speaks to you,” EP’s founder says. “The bars are designed to be very approachable and allow people to have a safe, manageable first experience and figure out where they want to be as far as their consumption. I think there’s a lot of emotional power there.”
The results speak for themselves. EP has a growing legion of fans and a presence across Canada, from east to west. But how do you protect a brand and a trademark that operates illegally?
“These are challenges we are working through right now,” EP’s founder says, but he’s also confident the quality of the product will continue to set it aside from competitors. “At the end of the day, I don’t think you can fake quality. I really want to create a standout product, but it’s hard to get it into people’s hands under the current situation. If we can find a partner who can help us get to the legal market, great. If we can do it on our own, also great.”
What would a legal path look like? The Cannabis Act, in its first form, will legalize only cannabis flower and certain cannabis oils—but no edibles. The government has said it will reconsider edibles after legalization’s first year. Companies like EP have to find a way to stay afloat and protect their brands while still appealing to potential partners on the legal side of the industry. As it is, the customer base EP has built may ultimately help the company reach a legal future.
“It looks like the rules on marketing and packaging and branding and communicating with consumers are going to be so restrictive that having a built-in customer base, having established those emotional relationships with people, will have value. We’re hoping that somebody recognizes that.”
During the January retail doldrums, the design studio took a break. They closed up for a few weeks, took a vacation, and when they returned, their emails and voicemails were full.
“We were like ‘Okay, wow, people really want to buy furniture,” the owner says. Turns out, people really wanted to buy more chocolate bars. “It was all chocolates. Everyone wanted more chocolate.”
EP’s founder has invested three years into the business now, with the last year and a half being a full-time commitment. “This is either going to fail spectacularly or were going to find a way to be a part of the legal market,” he says. “Those are really the only two choices left. I don’t think I can quietly make an exit at this point. This is what I’ve committed my life to at this time.”
Back at the design studio, as customers buzz around the space, the owner holds a bar in his hands and explains how he got here. “It’s more about home and life and the lifestyle our customers have,” he says. “Our customers decorate their homes, but they also have a lifestyle outside pillows and tables, so it’s good business for us.”
“And besides,” he continues, “it just makes sense.”