DENVER — Would you like those pot brownies in regular or gluten-free?
Retailers across Colorado are baking, injecting, spraying and infusing marijuana into just about every conceivable food as they race to meet demand for what are known as edibles.
While pot brownies are perhaps the best-known form, you can now buy marijuana-infused foods ranging from hard candies to cookies, olive oil, granola bars, chocolate truffles and spaghetti sauce.
Retailers even sell marijuana extracts known as tincture so people can dose their own cooking. Prices vary, depending on the strength and number of doses in each item.
"You name it, it's being made," says Julie Postlethwait of Colorado's Division of Marijuana Enforcement.
Retail marijuana sales became legal in Colorado on Jan. 1, and new shop owners say they've been surprised at how strong the edibles market has been. They credit anti-smoking campaigns with turning first-time pot buyers into edibles advocates. Fans say eating a cookie or sucking on a mint is far more convenient and discreet than smoking, especially for parents worried about returning home from a party smelling like pot.
"The smell is a big one," says Coit Stevenson, 28, of Denver, who has tried both edibles and smoking. He prefers smoking but says edibles are an attractive alternative, especially for first-time users.
And they've been snapping up that alternative like crazy. Sales by Denver-based infused-food maker Dixie Elixirs and Edibles jumped from about 10% of the pre-Jan. 1 medical marijuana market to about 50% of the recreational market, says Joe Hodas, the company's chief marketing officer. The fast-growing company is moving into a 27,000-square-foot factory and warehouse to meet demand.
"People want an alternative to smoking," says Hodas, whose company makes edibles like mints and candies, along with marijuana-infused sodas in flavors like sparkling peach and sarsaparilla. "While one person enjoys a soda, another might enjoy chocolates."
To make edibles, bakers extract THC — tetrahydrocannabinol, the active chemical ingredient — from marijuana plants, usually suspending it in an oil, and then incorporate that into food. Experts say edibles tend to give a slightly different kind of "high" because the THC is absorbed and processed into the bloodstream through the stomach and digestive system instead of the lungs. The high takes longer to kick in and tends to last longer, Hodas says.
The edibles available for sale in Colorado's marijuana stores are professionally packaged, made in commercial kitchens and may be tested for strength and impact. The marijuana is infused into products that otherwise look and taste like regular cookies, brownies and energy drinks, worrying some parents.
A study published last year in the journal JAMA Pediatrics said there had been a spike in the number of young children being treated for accidentally eating pot or marijuana-laced cookies, candies, brownies and beverages at Children's Hospital Colorado. The study found that in the two years after marijuana laws were liberalized in fall 2009, 14 kids were treated for accidental ingestion. In the four years before the change, the study said, no kids had been hospitalized for accidental ingestion.
"They can come in any form, and it's not just baked goods — it's candy and soda. They're doctoring up regular food items," says Gina Carbone, a former PTA president and mother of four. She worries that state regulations don't go far enough to keep pot out of the hands of kids by making them less attractive. A volunteer with Smart Colorado, a group lobbying to protect kids from marijuana, Carbone says edibles are attractive to children, who might be deterred by smoking.
"We feel like there are a lot of safeguards that are not being put in place to protect our kids," she said.
State officials are still developing a testing-and-monitoring system for edibles, Postlethwait says, in part because there's been so little formal research on the effects of marijuana use because it remains illegal at the federal level. She advises anyone trying edibles for the first time to nibble carefully, especially because the onset of the high can take hours: "Don't eat the whole cookie all at once. Go slow."