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Despite the crackdowns, marijuana entrepreneurs are betting on 'edibles'

Jeff Salz and partner Garrett Downes advised the makers of a a new line of pot chocolate bars called Stolz

David Long/Ellen Long

Virginia Maria Vidal started medicating with marijuana in 2003, after the birth of triplets left her with post-natal discomfort. She ran into trouble over the years, once being arrested, charged, and eventually acquitted of possessing 19 grams of pot. Even after obtaining a licence to use medical marijuana, the 45-year-old mother of six and caregiver to a grandparent with dementia found the smoke to be a nuisance and embarrassing. So she ground it into tea instead.

"It was a way to medicate without smell, without judgment, and in a way that you can medicate slowly," says Ms. Vidal of Toronto. Last year she collaborated with her eldest son Ricardo to launch Mary's Original Tea, an organically-sourced line of flavours such as peppermint and orange pekoe. Each packet is infused with 60 milligrams of THC – the active cannabinoid ingredient that can relieve pain or give a "high." And they're now available in 60 stores.

Or, at least, they were. Last month's crackdown on Toronto's illegal marijuana dispensaries shuttered many of the family company's partners. But cannabis industry insiders like Ms. Vidal are betting that legalization in Canada and most of America is inevitable, and that "edibles" – such as teas, pastries, candies, and syrups – will get a big market share.

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Ms. Vidal says the crackdowns aren't having a big impact on revenue – she also sells her product online and says demand is growing – but she's still worried. "It's going to be quite the battle," she says. "We need our Prime Minister to stand with us."

Selling edible marijuana products – other than the oils mailed through Ottawa's medical system – is illegal, however jurisdictions such as Vancouver and Victoria have chosen to ignore the law and regulate them instead. The federal laws are rarely enforced because the framework of regulations governing marijuana for medical purposes is evolving, and unlicensed producers continue to sell in stores or by mail.

Last year, a Supreme Court judgment ruled that licensed patients couldn't be limited to consuming cannabis in smoking form only, but did not comment on the legality of edibles. Further, in February a federal court struck down restrictions preventing licensed patients from growing their own medical marijuana, giving the government six months to rewrite the laws.

Unless recreational use is permitted, the market for edibles will remain small. But in Colorado, where recreational use is legal, some retailers reported to the the Marijuana Business Factbook that 60 per cent of their revenue comes from cannabis-infused products. In 2014, edibles and extracts accounted for 30 per cent of America's legal market, totalling $650-million (U.S.) to $850-million in sales.

Properly labelled products let consumers and patients measure a dose more accurately, with slower and longer-lasting psychoactive effects, but none of the stigma of smoking, says Jeff Salzsauler, a Vancouver pastry consultant who advised the makers of a a new line of pot chocolate bars called STOLZ. Mr. Salzsauler is working on the product in Victoria, which is preparing a bylaw to allow sales of edibles.

Given that 20 to 30 per cent of Canadians have used pot in the last year, compared with just 10 per cent of Americans, according to Forum Research, Mr. Salzsauler says the domestic market is going to be "really, really big."

"It's hard not to speak in superlatives," he says. This spring, Mr. Salzsauler and several partners won a Dragons' Den-style student entrepreneurship competition at Simon Fraser University with their proposal for Piva, of a B2B service for edible producers. Piva, launching later this year, will design, standardize and package products professionally.

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"[Cannabis producers] understand growing, they understand retailing, they understand the medical side, but, on the edible side, you have to have to have an understanding of the food business," says Mr. Salzsauler. "You've got to understand commercialization, food safety, product design – and that's a whole other world. We are offering a turnkey solution for people who want to get in."

"It's all going to be about standardization, which isn't too high of a bar," says Zach Walsh, a cannabis researcher and associate professor at the University of British Columbia. It will all come down to child-safety packaging and proper cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) labelling, the psychoactive ingredients akin to alcohol content, he says. "Just like a beer, you need to know that it's not 40-per-cent alcohol, because that will affect the speed of how you use it."

Edibles may also require a surgeon-general's-type warning that cannabinoid contents take longer to absorb, which would have been useful to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who wrote about rapidly consuming an entire chocolate bar and the eight-hour psychotic episode that followed.

"A lot of people aren't taking the proper care to properly dose in the edibles they're making for patients, and that's where it gets scary. They eat a cookie and their high gets out of control," says Derrick Sim of Thompson Caribou Concentrates, makers of syrups, Lego gummy candies and "budder" (think almond butter), all of which he claims are lab-tested by the batch for accurate content levels.

"That just makes people and society more comfortable," echoes Mr. Salz. He says dosage control is the single biggest barrier to legitimizing edibles. According to a Journal of American Medical Association study, only 13 of 75 edibles that scientists analyzed had the THC levels indicated by the labels. Colorado state law has now ruled that products must come in 10-mg single servings to prevent consumers from accidentally "greening out."

Concerns over dosage control and child safety prompted a Vancouver-wide ban on edibles from dispensaries. UBC's Walsh says producers haven't done themselves any favours by making products that look like candy, but as production matures it could transform the way we consume cannabis.

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"Delivery mechanisms have had a huge impact on the popularity of products," he says. "Cigarettes are what turned tobacco into a major problem; chocolate bars are what turned cocoa into a major consumer item. So will there be a new delivery system that will alter the fate of cannabis?"

If so, then Canada with its robust infrastructure for cannabis growing, retailing and research – and legalization possibly a year away – could be on the forefront.

Correction: A previous version said producing edibles in any form is illegal; In fact it's the sale of edible marijuana products – other than the oils mailed through Ottawa's medical system – that is illegal.

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