The biggest problem for the edibles industry is how to make their products kick in faster. The race is on.
Image credit: Lew Robertson | Getty Images
November 11, 2019 6 min read
This story appears in the October 2019 issue of Green Entrepreneur. Subscribe »
A few years ago, edibles started showing up in the last place anyone wanted to see them. The obituaries.
First, 19-year-old student Levy Thamba Pongi visited Denver during spring break of 2014 and jumped off a motel balcony after eating a marijuana cookie. Less than a year later, also in Colorado, a seemingly happy 23-year-old named Luke Goodman died by suicide on a ski vacation in Keystone -- a tragedy his family blames on cannabis candy. Earlier that day, he’d tried a couple of pieces, and when he didn’t feel anything, popped a few more -- four peach tarts and one red velvet in all, five times the recommended dose.
In neither of these cases were edibles proven to be the cause of death, but Goodman’s overdose experience is common. Unlike smoking or vaping, which gets you high right away, edibles often take more than two hours to kick in, so many people do what’s called stacking. After eating the appropriate dose and thinking, Nothing’s happening, they chow down on more. When the THC finally hits, it can overwhelm them with anxiety, intoxication, and psychiatric symptoms. A new study in Annals of Internal Medicine cited stacking as a main reason that edibles are landing people in the emergency room more than vaping or smoking. Between 2014 and 2016, the authors found, 11 percent of ER cannabis-related visits at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital in Denver were due to edibles -- 33 times what they would have expected considering overall pot sales data. The study also found that edibles patients had a higher chance of acute psychiatric problems and cardiovascular symptoms than those who had smoked or vaped weed. Fortunately, most of those people recover with time and hydration.
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Still, delayed action is a problem for edibles companies. Even under the best-case scenario, customers find it inconvenient to eat a cookie or candy and wait two or three hours, after which, who knows? The kids may show up, the boss might call for something unexpected, or they may no longer want to feel high. Remove that lag time and sales could soar, which is why edibles makers have been turning their R&D departments inside out to figure out how to make their tasty products as fast-acting as a joint or a vape. It hasn’t been easy. “We’ve spent more than a year testing -- oh my gosh, I don’t even know how many different technologies on this,” says Nancy Whiteman, cofounder and CEO of Wana Brands, the country’s number one edibles brand. “Quick onset is a game changer.”
The reason for edibles’ delayed effect is simple: When cannabis is consumed rather than inhaled, it has to go through the whole digestive system before entering the bloodstream. Unfortunately, shortcutting that process is anything but simple. The most progress has been made with drinks, and it’s being done with nanotechnology.
Nanoemulsions, for example, are made by splitting globules of cannabis oil into billions of droplets that are each less than 100 nanometers in diameter and suspended in a solution. “That small size allows these droplets to get through the membranes of the body and into the bloodstream without having to go all the way down into the digestive tract and get processed by the liver,” says Ben Larson, CEO of Vertosa, which makes the emulsions for manufacturers.
Image Credit: Lew Robertson | Getty Images
So far, these emulsions are being used mainly in liquid consumables, like Lagunitas’ new Hi-Fi Hops brew and Le Herbe beverages. With the growing market of cannabis drinks, there’s also been an explosion of nanoemulsion products. “Not all of them taste very good,” says Lagunitas’ brewmaster Jeremy Marshall. “There’s probably more naughty than nice.” Also, some of them aren’t technically “nano,” containing particles that are bigger than 100 nanometers in diameter. “If it’s transparent, it’s likely a nano; if it’s really cloudy, it’s definitely not,” says Chris Shade, founder and CEO of Quicksilver Scientific, which makes the nanoemulsion delivery system in Wana Brands’ new product: a fast-acting liquid formulation to launch this year called Nano Technology Tincture.
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Meanwhile Wana’s team is also rolling out Quicksilver Scientific’s product in their new candies, Wana Quick Gummies and Tarts. “Something that kicks in between five and 15 minutes is the real sweet spot,” Whiteman says. “We won’t come out with anything till we really are jumping-up-and-down excited about it.”
At least one company believes it has found the solution. Founded by Peter Barsoom, who spent 20 years on Wall Street, 1906 offers chocolates in various mood flavors, like Go, Sleep, and Bliss, that take effect in less than 20 minutes. Named for the year the Wiley Act was passed (effectively starting the era of cannabis prohibition), 1906 is on a mission to make consuming edibles as great an experience as smoking flower.
Starting in 2015, Barsoom spent two years experimenting with different methods to quicken delivery, conducted an in-house study to compare them, and finally settled on a patented lipid microencapsulation technology. “In a food formulation, nanotechnology doesn’t work,” he explains. “Lipid microencapsulation is quite a bit different. It binds up the THC and CBD molecules with a medium-chain fatty acid. And that allows you to bypass first-step digestion and get into the bloodstream much faster. It also means more of the THC in the CBD molecules are available because less of it gets destroyed by your digestive acids.”
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Reviews across the web back up the “less than 20 minutes” delivery claim, and the company’s expected 2019 revenue -- between $4 million and $5 million in Colorado alone -- suggests a lot of happy customers. This year, 1906 is launching a line of pills using the same technology. Next year it will expand to several different states and introduce cannabis beverages.
Barsoom keeps tinkering to make his chocolates take effect even faster and looks forward to other companies doing the same. “Unless you’re somebody who has six hours to have a date with an edible,” he says, “the market just doesn’t work. Nobody should have to wait for the cannabis to kick in.”