Mindful Munchies

From vegan gummies to cannabis teas, marijuana edibles are becoming the newest product in the “wellness” market.

A cup of tea with a marijuana leaf in it.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

This post is part of Nosh, a special pop-up blog about snacks. Read more here.

“Raise your hand if you’ve taken an edible.”

“Now, raise your hand if you’ve had a bad experience with an edible.”

These are the two questions Rob Rosenheck of Lord Jones, a cannabis product company out of Los Angeles, asks at the beginning of almost every talk he gives. He says the number of people who raise their hands after the second question is overwhelming.

In states where marijuana does not yet have a legitimate retail presence in the market, edibles are often thought of as home-baked confections laden with who knows how much weed. They may not work. Or they may work too well. Did you take enough? Did you take too much? You can never really know. You just have to wait and see. Hopefully you don’t end up melting into your couch cushions for 12 hours. But in places where they are legal, pot snacks are progressing into luxury, avant-garde, and even health-conscious territory, entirely subverting the common conception of the cannabis user as psychedelic stoner or criminal kingpin. And more importantly, they are becoming highly consistent and calibrated to the kind of experiences a range of cannabis consumers desire.

At this moment in America, the cannabis market is blue water as far as the eye can see. The potential for products to capture hyperspecific demographics is massive. Quim Rock, a company focused on sexual intimacy for people with vaginas, sells a stimulating topical oil. Vertly, founded by a glossy magazine editor, makes a cannabidiol, or CBD, lip butter packaged for the Aesop or Malin + Goetz lover. Dosist manufactures vape pens with names like Arousal, Sleep, and Bliss that correspond to the desired effect. The potential consumer base is also massive: Everyone from blue-collar workers looking for pain management products to hard-working mothers seeking a good night’s rest or a really good orgasm is up for grabs.

The wellness industry caters to many of the same needs—sleep, pain relief, beauty—and as the acceptance of integrative medicine and holistic treatments increases, so does the wellness industry’s link with the cannabis industry. Today, the increasing overlap of the two is impossible to ignore. Cannabis consumers most often report using it to treat pain, anxiety, and depression, which is not to mention those using it for everything from sleep to epilepsy to irritable bowel syndrome. With the potential to be a $47.3 billion industry according to Forbes, we can prepare to see capitalism do its magic in weird, wonderful, and possibly terrifying ways—indeed, the fun has already begun.

When it comes to wellness-focused edibles, the increased understanding of the endocannabinoid system—a complex network our bodies use to maintain homeostasis—is beginning to play a major part in how products are being manufactured, marketed, and bought. Simply put, the cannabinoids our body synthesizes naturally, which control anxiety, pain, and sleep are also found in plants, namely cannabis. The more the science progresses, the more companies can specifically target consumers’ needs.

On a very basic level, one of the most important factors in producing edibles is consistency in dosing. So you don’t melt into your couch for 12 hours. So you can get a good night’s sleep. So you can manage anxiety while also getting your toddler fed and bathed and put to bed. (Taking an edible does not always mean getting high. Not all products contain intoxicating levels of THC.) Another factor is flavor and form, not to mention packaging and storytelling, all of which draws consumers to the product.

For the founder of Lord Jones, edibles were an obvious route. As the partner of a creative agency, Rob Rosenheck worked with Lärabar and General Mills for six years and was familiar with the ropes of food products. A few years ago, when the landscape of the cannabis industry was saturated with stoner stereotypes, Rosenheck knew there was an underserved market. “We wanted to talk to the Whole Foods shopper, the Equinox members, factory workers who are on their feet all day,” says Rosenheck. “Medical patients are part of a marijuana culture that is decades old.” Candy was also an obvious route. “Candy-making is chemistry. It goes to the molecular level. We wanted to get pharmaceutical levels of accuracy and potency,” he says.

Lord Jones’ products range from dark chocolate espresso chews to jewel-toned gumdrops and are packaged in gold-rimmed, rainbow-bright hues. One of the company’s founding tenets was to create beautiful, superior food products that could stand on their own apart from the cannabis market. Both their CBD and THC candies are built on fruit essences from Europe and Ecuadorian chocolate. In addition to offering vegan candies and a CBD Pain & Wellness Lotion, in early May, Lord Jones will launch an ingestible tincture.

At Plus, an edibles company that started in Denver and is now based outside of Los Angeles, the focus is pointedly on flavor. “We are 98 percent a food manufacturer first and 2 percent a cannabis product,” says founder Jake Heimark.* “All of our flavors are organic. It’s a super-secret sauce, so I can’t say much more than that.” To distinguish themselves from many edibles lines, Plus was interested in creating a product that did not taste like marijuana. When building their edibles (blackberry and lemon indica, sour watermelon sativa, and pineapple coconut CBD), they separate out some of the terpenes (organic compounds that carry scent; they’re the aromatic element of many essential oils) from the cannabis and introduce terpenes from fruits and herbs to create pure flavors and pairings. As Jason DeLand from Dosist, the company behind those brilliant little vaporization pens, explains, terpenes can also be extracted from herbs and fruits like lavender, mango skins, and rosemary.

As with Lord Jones’ fusing of premium packaging with candy chemistry, companies that deal in chocolate are beginning to speak toward luxury markets as well as the environment- and health-conscious consumer. At Défoncé, which translates to “high” in French, chocolate is taken as seriously as the way the cannabis that activates it is grown, which is to say biodynamically, in the sun, and with mindfulness of carbon footprint. According to Défoncé’s story: “The best wines embrace the concept of single-origin. The same goes for things like coffee and chocolate. The idea? Create foods that exhibit terroir.” A seed-to-bar concept, the chocolate itself appears a whimsical avant-garde sculpture, angular and sleek in its Pantone-swatch packaging. The dark chocolate and dark+ varieties are vegan. Everything is fair trade. Everything is THC-tested five times, screened for pesticides and microorganisms, and profiled for cannabinoids and terpenoids. Its FAQ section reads like a lab survey: Q: Why do you use CO2 extraction?”A: “Supercritical CO2 extraction holds several advantages over other extraction methods, such as those using alcohol and hydrocarbons.”

Other chocolate companies focus on the effect. To Whom It May makes a Mindful Medicine chocolate whose description evokes the prologue to a meditation retreat: “Whether you medicate for physical relief, or to inspire all manner of play, to propel your work, or find creative spark—‘to each their own’ we say.” Marigold Sweets in California applies the Slow Food ethos to all of their confections. Beyond chocolate, Beboe, an L.A.-based company founded by tattoo artist Scott Campbell and former investment banker Clement Kwan, minimizes the focus on candy and remixes the edible into old-timey pastilles. These and their vapes, gilded with Art Deco lines and curves, are swathed in pretty pastels, and have currency in the Hollywood set. “It’s like the Erewhon version of SweeTarts,” says Kwan referring to the organic grocery store with a culty following in Venice, California. “We were inspired by the Goop and Moon Juice people.”

As the idea of wellness becomes more deeply bound up with cannabis, the edibles segment is progressing and merging with traditional wellness products—powders, teas, tinctures.

“There’s no health benefit to getting your vitamins in candy form,” says Jessica Assaf, founder of the Cannabis Feminist community in Los Angeles. She’s referring to the paradoxical idea of vitamins and supplements that come in candy forms—gummies or chewables. She’s also referring to a demographic of people who want to integrate cannabis into their daily wellness routine without compromising personal values. She believes, for the average citizen, cannabis has the potential to exist purely as a wellness product, entirely outside of recreation. And for Assaf and many in her community, candy can feel antithetical to a holistic view of wellness. “Why would I eat a sugary candy to get my cannabinoids if I wouldn’t eat a sugary candy normally? You have to ask, do edible offerings align with your values?”

Assaf is currently working on a line of wellness products called Hempia with Christopher Gavigan, co-founder of the Honest Company, whose THC levels will be below the legal limit so they can be shipped and used anywhere. Other products like Mondo, a creamy, coconut- and cacao-laced powder, and High Tea, CBD-infused cold brew tea, not to mention the wide array of tinctures coming to market, are evolving beyond candy to serve a demo not so interested in the snacking side. Kwan at Beboe expressed his enthusiasm about recovery products, for both hangovers and post-workout states. Vegan restaurants Gracias Madre and Café Gratitude, both in L.A., have included CBD drinks on their cocktail lists.

Despite all of this experimentation, we are far from peak edible. It’s not crazy to think that in a board room somewhere, executives at Hershey or Kellogg’s are considering how to get a piece of the market share. But edibles are only one facet of an industry that will undoubtedly expand in ways we have yet to imagine. The strange irony is that, in a country where countless people—and a disproportionate number of people of color—have been arrested and imprisoned for cannabis-related crimes, the substance itself is poised to become a cousin to probiotics, collagen, and omega-3s. It’s a twisted prodigal son story fueled by capitalism, institutionalized discrimination, and the age-old hunt for youth and beauty.

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Correction, May 1, 2018: This post originally misspelled Jake Heimark’s last name.