A beginner’s guide to marijuana edibles in Massachusetts

Cannabis-infused food is booming in other states. Here's what to expect when they hit stores here.

In this Jan. 4, 2018 photo, marijuana edibles are displayed at the Apothecary Shoppe marijuana dispensary in Las Vegas. Marijuana edibles have quickly become a hot seller in the first seven months of legalized pot in Nevada, with as much as 45 percent of all weed sales being edibles, according to figures from several dispensary owners.  (Steve Marcus/Las Vegas Sun via AP)
Chocolates at a marijuana dispensary in Las Vegas. –Steve Marcus / Las Vegas Sun via AP

It isn’t just pot brownies.

Massachusetts is set to see a wide variety of edible products hit the retail marijuana market beginning this summer. Even if officials expect the recreational marijuana market to be “sparse” when stores begin opening in July, industry experts say edibles have the potential to be particularly exciting for the Bay State.

“There’ll be some really inventive products,” said Jaime Lewis, who founded an edibles company in Colorado and is preparing to open another, Mayflower Medicinals, in Massachusetts.

At the same time, edibles present some unique challenges to both manufacturers and policymakers. State regulators have been extra cautious implementing regulations to address common concerns, like child access and overconsumption.

What types of products should we expect?

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Under the voter-approved ballot measure legalizing recreational marijuana in 2016, the types of infused products allowed include edibles, beverages, topical products, ointments, oils, and tinctures. And there’s a good amount of room for manufacturers to get creative. Specifically on the edibles front, the range of products goes far beyond the classic homemade baked goods.

“Pretty much anything you can cook, you can cook with cannabis,” said Kris Krane, a top cannabis industry consultant.

Marijuana edibles are displayed at the Apothecary Shoppe marijuana dispensary in Las Vegas. —Steve Marcus / Las Vegas Sun via AP

According to Krane, gummies, hard candies, chocolates, and lozenges join baked goods, like brownies and cookies, as the most popular products in states that already have legal markets. Marijuana-infused nonalcoholic drinks and tinctures also have made inroads.

“The taste of cannabis when it’s cooked is pretty strong,” Krane said. “Those products tend to mask it.”

Lewis says the variety of marijuana-infused foods will be no different than what you’d find in the local grocery store snack aisle. And from gourmet chocolate to spaghetti sauce to Nutella knockoffs to frozen pizza, the industry has increasingly shown a bit of culinary flair.

One Quincy medical dispensary has already rolled out a South Shore-style infused bar pizza and “cannabis cuisine” recently landed on the Specialty Food Association’s predicted food trends for 2018. It seems only a matter of time until Massachusetts sees cannabis clam chowder and baked apple cider doughnuts.

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What are the advantages of edibles?

Besides the appeal of combining tasty food with the effects of THC (the principal psychoactive in marijuana that gets you high), edibles are an arguably healthier alternative to those who want avoid inhaling smoke. Not that consuming marijuana-infused sweets or pizza is a particularly healthy choice, but it’s better than poisoning your lungs with carcinogens.

For medical patients, there’s another benefit: The longer lasting effects mean longer and more reliable relief to their symptoms. Krane says this is particularly helpful for people taking them to deal with physical pain or sleep issues.

Are there any concerns?

“Edible products can be worrisome in two major ways,” said Andrew Livingston, the top policy researcher at Vicente Sederberg, a Denver-based law firm that specializes in the marijuana industry.

The first common concern is access by children, especially very young ones. Like alcohol, possessing and purchasing marijuana is illegal for those under 21, and children are more susceptible to severe symptoms from consuming the drug. Livingston says it’s a “legitimate point,” considering how the most popular edibles come in the form of small sweets and gummies.

“You want to ensure that the packages are not attractive to children, and you want to ensure that they are attractive to adults,” he said.

As a result, the Cannabis Control Commission, which finalized the state’s regulation of the marijuana industry in March, has tailored a number of detailed rules restricting the look and packaging of edibles. Companies are prohibited from making or selling edibles in the distinct shape or likeness of a human, animal, fruit, or cartoon character, according to the commission’s rules. And, among other labeling requirements, the packaging must have two symbols marking that the product contains marijuana and is not safe for kids.

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Each single serving of the edible itself must also be marked, stamped, or imprinted with a symbol indicating it contains marijuana.

Packaging symbols —Cannabis Control Commission

Secondly, the relatively slow metabolization of edibles is somewhat of a double-edged sword. Whereas the effects of smoking marijuana hit within a matter of minutes, edibles are far slower to take effect — which can result in concerns about overconsumption.

It’s definitely not enjoyable,” Livingston said, though he noted the consequences are less severe than over-consuming alcohol or overdosing on harder drugs.

With the exception of a few sensational stories, the general worst-case scenario is that people have a panic attack, call 911, and end up with an $8,000 ambulance bill, when all they really needed was comfort from a friend, Livingston said.

Still, “it can be quite unpleasant,” said Krane, who estimates that most edibles take 60 to 90 minutes to take effect. The CCC’s rules require edible packaging to warn that “impairment effects … may be delayed by two hours or more.”

“Go low, go slow,” said Lewis, who serves on the CCC’s advisory board.

Another measure to address worries of overconsumption is dosage limits. Ten milligrams of THC is commonly accepted as a standard starting point and the maximum recommended for beginners. In Colorado and California, 10 milligrams is the limit for a single serving.

Brownies with the printed THC stamp at the Zoots marijuana edibles production facility in Denver in 2016. —Bob Pearson / The Boston Globe

However, the CCC’s rules set the serving limit at five milligrams of THC. And while packages of edibles can have up to 100 milligrams total, the product must be separated out into servings of no more than five milligrams.

Even if the overall regulations are somewhat more restrictive than in other states, industry members praised the rules for combining the best of what’s been implemented in other states.

“I think this is a smart first approach, and they’re being rightfully cautious,” Livingston said.

Over time, he expects to work to standardize their regulations with other states where recreational weed is legal.

What will the market look like?

Lewis says edibles are a “slow emerging product on the market” in Massachusetts, in part due to the fact that the state’s medical marijuana program went through such a delayed rollout. But in other states, they’ve been exploding in popularity.

Various estimates peg edibles somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of the overall retail pot market. In Colorado, Livingston says flower makes up around half of the market, marijuana concentrate makes up a third, and the rest — roughly a sixth — is comprised of edibles and topical products. According to Forbes, that share is expected to grow 25 percent annually. In Nevada, which voted to legalize retail pot in 2016 like Massachusetts, edibles reportedly accounted for 45 percent of all weed sales.

“It’s a good time to jump in now,” Lewis said.

That doesn’t mean the industry is an easy one to get into. Massachusetts is already expected to face a supply problem in the nascent industry’s first months, if not years, and the upfront costs of running an edibles company could be stifling. According to Lewis, individual businesses must prepare to raise “substantial capital” to cover the costs of satisfying the regulations on tracking, testing, and labeling their products, in addition to operating a commercial kitchen.

“It’s like running a kitchen and a lab,” she said.

Pricing obviously depends on the type of food being infused. Krane says to expect 100-milligram edibles in the $30 to $60 range. The state’s wider recreational weed market is expected to experience high prices at first, before eventually stabilizing below black market averages — though that could take at least a year.

However tempered individual companies’ growth expectations should be, there’s enthusiasm for the entirely new industry to take off on the East Coast. While many retail stores will offer edibles as a side to their main flower offerings, some companies are expected to make them their sole focus.

“I think it’s going to open up a ton of beautiful products — a lot of of innovation in edibles and food science,” Lewis said.