From Lollipops To Tinctures: The Science Behind THC-Infused Edibles

Jan 22, 2016

When Gov. Peter Shumlin voiced his support for legalizing recreational marijuana, he made a specific exception: edibles — pot infused cookies, brownies, butters and goodies.

The concern is that people won’t know how much marijuana they're actually consuming and that these products could appeal to kids and the uninitiated.

But in Vermont, the medical marijuana dispensaries already have edible products for their customers. This experience could offer an interesting perspective on how to regulate THC — the principal psychoactive component in marijuana — as well as how to inform customers about their effects.

Bridget Conry is the operations manager for Champlain Valley Dispensary, which runs two dispensaries: the Champlain Valley Dispensary and Southern Vermont Wellness in Brattleboro. With a background in food management and herbalism, she was originally hired to develop the dispensaries' product line of edibles.

Vermont Edition recently spoke with Conry about the process behind making and using THC-infused products. 

What are the different ways THC can be “consumed”?

As Conry explains it, there are “four different methods of consumption.”

1. Inhalation, "which is the cured flower [of the plant], and the concentrates the people either smoke or vaporize."

2. The mouth and tounge. "There are the oral mucosal products that are sublingual: they are absorbed through the lining of the mouth and the tongue."

3. Ingestion. This "includes your traditional food and beverages, your brownies, cookies, energy bars, and teas."

4. Transdermal and topical. "Those can be local or systemic; the transdermal ones being systemic. It can be a patch, it can be a gel, it can be a lotion and that goes into your bloodstream through your seven layers of skin, so it's not local.”

What do you make at the dispensary?

“We have a whole line of infused fats, so that our customers can make their own edibles at home. So there’s butter, there's coconut oil, there's [clarified butter]. We have a bakery line of sweet and savory items: the traditional cookies, brownies that everybody thinks about but we [also] have crackers and we have gluten-free items.

“We have sugar-free items, which is important in our market because we're dealing with very ill people. In order to get on the registry, you have to have a serious illness and so we need to have a wide range of products for people's nutritional restrictions as well.”

Conry says they also have lollipops.

What is a “tincture”?

A THC tincture is a bottled solution with a medicine dropper that allows users to dispense the liquid a few drops at a time. Conry says the solution can be alcohol, glycerin or “even vinegar based.”

A tincture is a small bottle containing a THC mixture, dispensed onto an individuals tongue a few drops at a time with the included dropper.
Credit Courtesy of Bridget Conry

“The challenge, and the goal, is to create a specific dose within that bottle. So a 1-ounce bottle is 30 millimeters and you'd like to know that those 30 millimeters contain 100 milligrams of THC.”

To be able to test that information, Conry says they quickly realized they’d need access to lab facilities.

“We’re not mandated by the state to actually have lab testing. So as we grew and got into a bigger product line, we realized really quickly that there was no way that we were going to be able to inform our patients about what our products were unless we had a lab.”

Vermont currently does not have a lab licensed to handle cannabis, so the dispensary staff decided they’d have to look into other options.

“Vermont Patient Alliance has a lab and so we collaborate with them. We test our product at many stages before it gets to its finished product that the patient is buying.”

What is the testing process from raw material to finished product?

“We’re testing our raw plant material to understand what the cannabinoid content is; we’re infusing that into a fat, that's the traditional way to do it. I think that's the way that most people understand, that you infuse a plant material into butter or coconut oil," Conry says.

“So you would then test the butter to see how many milligrams transferred into the fat, and then you would use that fat to medicate a batch of cookies, brownies, crackers, whatever it is that you're trying to do.

“Then you want to test when it's done to make sure that you have homogeneity across the batch. So there's a lot of testing there from start to finish to be able to tell somebody reliably, ‘This cracker is going to have 20 milligrams of THC in it consistently.’

“There is an about 20 percent variance there, that's tolerable and that's even tolerable in other markets in the pharmaceutical industry. You don't necessarily get 100 milligrams of whatever the active ingredient is. So you might not get one that's 5 milligrams every single time. It might be a little bit over, it might be a little bit under. But we're shooting for that range that's reasonable for every product.”

Conry says even with the most consistent facilities and processes, every batch should always be tested at every step.

“Because we're dealing with a live plant here, you can test the same plant at many different places on the plant, [and] get a different result. Because the plant distributes its cannabinoids differently through the leaves, through the flowers, depending on its environmental stressors and things like that.”

Why go to this much trouble?

Conry says their facility is in the process of implementing that level of testing across the board. Even without legal mandate, Conry says it’s important people know what they’re getting with each product.

“It’s really important for the consumer to know what they're consuming. Every person has their own personal experience with every product that we have, so there are generalizations that you can make. But you're still going to find a lot of variance within that and that's true for any of the methods of consumption," she says.

“You can have a person who takes edibles and it does nothing for them; they have the all no effect. And you can have another person take a very small amount and have a very intense effect," Conry adds.

Overall, Conry says the more information you can provide, the better. "When you get up into those higher numbers, you're really putting people in the position of overmedicating. So you want to know what you are starting out with so that you can make the best decisions to find a product that works best for you," she says.

How much is too much?

Conry says they advise people to start with small dosages to develop an understanding of their own tolerance level.

“We advise people to start at very low amounts until they understand what their tolerance is. Five milligrams -- for us, that's a good starting place," she says. “When you start looking at some of the edibles out in the market in other states, you have edibles that are 100 to 1,000 milligrams [per] brownie. That's not where you want to start."

And Conry say that’s when things can get dangerous.

“Without having experience, without being educated, you're looking at a product that has the potential to put you in a place for a while and be uncomfortable.”

How does labeling edibles work? Are there serving sizes?

Conry says they are close to having products like sticks of infused butter available, labeled with total THC content, but aren’t there quite yet.

“The hope will be that every product that we have will have that information, but right now they're not on every label," she says.

For now, the dispensary has test results for each batch that can be shared with patients verbally when purchasing products, as well as a printed ingredients list.

On Gov. Peter Shumlin’s hesitation on legalizing edibles for recreational use

“I understand the hesitation that the governor has in making sure that we have all these [regulations, tests and precautions] in place before we move forward with making these products available to a broader market,” Conry says.

Conry does say she’d be interested to know what products Gov. Shumlin would be interested in banning.

“We would like to ask, ‘Is that anything that you put in your mouth that you might ingest?’ Because obviously the oral mucosal and the ingestibles could both be considered edibles even though we separate them. I think that a tincture is a good example of an oral mucosal, something that we find in the medical market works really well for people, because it's so controllable. You're working drop-by-drop; you can really manage your dose … So I'm not sure if those are going to be banned, or if we're just talking about the food and beverage items," she says.

“We always advise you to go low and slow. And with any product, even though we create our item small to begin with, we don't like to over size because I think there's always going to be the temptation to eat the whole thing. So we start small and we always tell people to start with a quarter. And wait at least two hours before you consume any more," Conry says.

“[With] the ingestible products, what happens when you do get them in your system is that the THC actually gets transformed within your liver and becomes a more powerful chemical and it's more intense and it's longer," Conry explains. "[It] tends to be a six-to-eight hour duration time, so once you have are having your experience you have it for a while and that's what's actually good about an edible. Once you understand which products work for you and what your doses [are], having a product like that where you know you're going to get a six-to-eight hour window of relief for your symptoms is super important.”

Conry says on average, edible products make up about 15 percent of their sales. 

This piece originally appeared with the headline "Medical Marijuana Dispensary Weighs In On Edibles In Vermont."