Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions sent a memo to all U.S. attorneys that rescinded the Cole Memorandum, a decree issued in 2013 by Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole outlining federal policy on the cannabis industry. The decree, essentially, placed the responsibility of oversight over marijuana consumption and sales on individual states. “The Department’s guidance in this memorandum,” Cole wrote, “rests on the expectation that states and local governments that have enacted laws authorizing marijuana-related conduct will implement strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems that will address the threats those state laws could pose to public safety, public health and other law enforcement interests.”
This relaxation of federal oversight enabled 29 states, plus the District of Columbia, to pass laws legalizing marijuana in some form and has likely facilitated increased support for legalization or decriminalization (including in Sessions’ home state of Alabama). A Gallup poll conducted last fall showed 64% of Americans now support legal marijuana—the highest level of public support Gallup has found in nearly a half-century of measurement—and that the support is bipartisan: 72% of Democrats, 67% of Independents and 51% of Republicans now support legalization of marijuana.
Support for legalized use isn’t just about the high. According to The Cannabist, a new study by New Frontier Data (a data analytics firm focused on the cannabis industry) shows legalizing marijuana nationwide would create at least $132 billion in tax revenue and more than a million new jobs across the United States over the next decade.
Since the Cole Memorandum issuance, the cannabis industry has experienced continuous growth. Analysts predicted sales of $9.7 billion in 2017, an unprecedented 33% increase over 2016. In Colorado—a state representing about 20% of the legal domestic market where adult usage has been legal since 2014—traditional dried flowers (that are smoked or vaped) represent about 56% of earnings. The remainder of the industry is dedicated to extracts, topical products and edibles, giving rise to a niche market of premium products that is poised to redefine the industry. “Our competitors aren’t other edibles,” Peter Barsoom, cofounder of Colorado-based edibles company 1906, explains. “They are wine, coffee and other products we consume to alter us in some way.”
1906 is one of a handful of companies in the United States working with experienced chocolate makers to create products that deliver on both experience and taste. “Cannabis is great plant medicine, but the experience has been so disjointed. You’d have a quality, organic, good-tasting strain of cannabis being paired with mediocre chocolate with no idea of how it would make you feel—or when [the effects] would kick in.”
Founded in 2015 by Barsoom and his partner, Ghita Tazi, with the goal of celebrating the “physical, physiological and psychological versatility of cannabis and other medicinal plants,” it took over two years for the couple to cross regulatory hurdles, build the team and develop a range of products intended to help with sleep, relaxation, energy and arousal. This included bringing on Erin Holzer as vice president of operations. Holzer, a former chocolate maker at Theo Chocolate, interestingly, does not consume THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive part of cannabis) but is a big fan of CBD (cannabidiol, a cannabis compound that confers significant medical benefits without the high).
In the early days before the team relocated to Denver, they would convene in a Colorado Airbnb and spend a week working on formulations. “Our plan,” Barsoom says, “was to combine strains of cannabis with other plant medicines to create something that was fast-acting, tasted great and worked as intended.” (This writer can confirm they work. Well. I haven’t slept this soundly since childhood.) “The experience starts with the smell and taste,” Barsoom explains. “In this case, with chocolate.”
The company is now branching out into other methods of delivery, but most products still use chocolate as their base. Holzer starts with single-origin coverture (chocolate with extra cocoa butter) from Ghana, Ecuador, Madagascar and Peru. “We wanted to make sure we created an edible that was really great to eat,” Holzer explains. That included getting an exclusive license on an encapsulation process that coats the THC molecule in another fat that helps mitigate the weedy flavor that often dominates edibles. “It also helps make them more bioavailable,” he adds. “The consumer gets a more intense experience of the low-dose of 5 milligrams of THC that’s in the product because it gets into their system faster. This is a big deal in the edibles industry because the onset of the experience often seems like roulette.”
But before adding the THC, the team blends in botanicals selected by chief scientist Justin Kirkland, an ethnobotanist based in Boulder. “We chose botanicals that would be efficacious in a single dose,” Holzer says. “That ruled out stuff like maca, which you need a lot of in order to be effective.” These inclusions also have to be delicious: “One of the ingredients we really wanted to use was an adaptogen called rhodiola [used to boost energy and mental vitality]. But it tastes terrible.”
The company spent over $100,000 on flavor masking and two and a half years on research and development to create a line that delivers on both function and flavor: “We knew each [physiological] experience needed to offer a different flavor experience,” Barsoom explains. “So we asked ourselves, ‘What is the flavor of sleep—or love?’” The team settled on a vanilla-rich chocolate for the edible promoting sleep (called “Midnight”); a sharper, fruitier chocolate with coffee nibs for energy (“Go”); a chocolate with rich honey aromas for relaxation (“Pause”); and one with notes of vanilla and rose for their aphrodisiac chocolate (“High Love”).
But how will this investment of time and energy be impacted by Sessions’ decision? Barsoom suspects not at all. “It was expected,” he says. He believes that the strong relationships he has with funders will ensure the business is not disrupted in any way. “And the possible good news, if Congress acts, is that the industry will be in a better place than with the Cole memo.”
For now, it is unclear how Sessions’ rescindment will affect states that have legalized marijuana use—or how the country as a whole will approach questions of legalized use moving forward. (Including questions around justice: a disproportionate percentage of people of color are, and have been, incarcerated for marijuana-related offenses. In addition, entrepreneurs of color who are interested in entering into the burgeoning cannabis industry typically have limited access to start-up capital and networks.)
But what Barsoom points to is an unavoidable move toward clarity. “At the end of the day,” he says, “Jeff Sessions may have handed the industry a most unexpected gift.”