This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, It’s All Going to Pot: The Science and Economics of Edibles, first released on Aug. 17, 2021. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
NICOLA TWILLEY: All right, we just received our MedMen delivery. And we have a variety of attractive packages on the table: A sparkling pear Camino, which says it’s “social,” midnight blueberry Camino, which is a more of a sleep oriented packet. When I told my husband Geoff we were making a Gastropod mini-series about edibles, he was on the MedMen website faster than you could say cannabis. And just a couple of hours later, someone arrived on my doorstep and handed me a big bag of gummies.
GEOFF MANAUGH: They used to joke how Audis were designed so that when you opened then closed the door, it had a very satisfying kind of clunk. So let’s see if Camino, if these guys have thought that through as an audio experience. SOUND OF CANISTER OPENING
TWILLEY: That sounded good.
MANAUGH: Yeah, look at that. So yeah, kind of unscrews and pops up and you’ve got these not necessarily appetizing looking purple gunk squares.
TWILLEY: That’s that midnight blueberry, which tasted to me more like random blue candy than blueberry specifically, if you know what I mean. I, of course, am Nicola Twilley.
CYNTHIA GRABER: And I am Cynthia Graber, and you’re listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. And for our tasting, my partner Tim and I stopped off at a recreational dispensary in Massachusetts, and I asked for the very smallest dose they had available—they had 2 milligram gummies in a grapefruit gin flavor. We bought one package of 10 gummies and took them home.
GRABER: Okay, so I guess it’s time, and because I really have never done this, I’m going to start with one milligram tonight because I want to find out the lowest dose that has any effect at all.
TIM BUNTEL: They might be delicious, but they’ve got to work on their packaging. This is to make it child safe, but it’s like…
GRABER: I think that’s true actually. Just impossible to open.
BUNTEL: It’s like a gumdrop.
GRABER: Yeah. But now I want only half of a gumdrop.
BUNTEL: All right.
GRABER: Cheers. Oh, it’s tasty.
BUNTEL: Tastes like one of those fruit slices. Those fruit slice candies. I could see how you could inadvertently eat too many.
GRABER: Oh my God. I would just eat the container, ‘cause they’re really delicious.
TWILLEY: So… what happened next? Is the rest of this episode just going to be gibberish? All will be revealed, as Cynthia tries pot for the very first time in part two of our edibles adventure.
GRABER: Last episode, we explored the ancient history of the very first edibles, and told the story of the pot brownie that helped make cannabis legal again—and launch its modern culinary career.
TWILLEY: This week, we’re going to answer everything *else* you ever wanted to know about edibles and cannabis—
GRABER: Like, how do you know how much to take if you’re not a, well, seasoned expert? And what should you do—do you want the THC version, maybe CBD, or a bit of both?
TWILLEY: We are going to dive into the science of what cannabis does to your body—what we do know, what we don’t yet know, and whether Nancy Reagan was right that it will fry your brain like eggs.
GRABER: Plus, how do you run a business that’s federally illegal? For you budding edible entrepreneurs, can you ship across state lines? How do you pay your income tax? Can you deduct your expenses?
TWILLEY: Cynthia’s inner accountant is very concerned. But beyond the business side of things, what should the cannabis industry of the future look like? It’s a multibillion dollar opportunity—but are the people who have been most harmed by the war on drugs going to get a piece of that? We’ve got all that this episode, plus Cynthia gets high. Maybe.
GRABER: Gastropod is part of the Vox Media Network, in partnership with Eater. This episode was made possible thanks to generous support from the Alfred P Sloan Foundation for the Public Understanding of Science, Technology, and Economics, as well as the Burroughs Wellcome Fund for our coverage of biomedical research.
NATHAN COZZOLINO: My name is Nathan Cozzolino. And we are at Rose’s Kitchen in the Mission District in San Francisco.
TWILLEY: Which we managed to find, despite there being no sign on the door. This is one food factory that did not want to advertise its location.
GRABER: We joined Nathan at his Turkish delight company in a bustling white-walled warehouse space, where there were double boilers for cooking and big shiny steel tables for shaping and wrapping.
COZZOLINO: We’re packaging today. We’re packaging… It looks like they’re packaging a Rose hibiscus recipe. Over here Gabe is juicing a bunch of Lisbon lemons that we got from a friend’s tree in Monterey County at Bird Valley Organics. We’re doing a recipe that is Lisbon lemon and mulberry, and the mulberry’s a syrup that we make from mulberries from Frog Hollow Farms, that Joey, who’s here somewhere, infuses with rosemary.
TWILLEY: In the back, there’s a room full of tall sheet pan racks, each rack had a sheet pan on it full of little baby gummies, curing in the dry air.
GRABER: That’s beautiful.
TWILLEY: Like little jewels.
GRABER: I was gonna say that, like totally like little jewels.
COZZOLINO: You’re welcome to try one, those are single milligrams. This is a skin contact. It’s a grenache grape from Phil Coturri, that Sonoma County winery we were talking about.
GRABER: Mm that is so good.
TWILLEY: So good.
GRABER: On the racks, they had all sorts of delicious-sounding flavors, a lot of these they’d come up with in partnership with famous chefs. There was an apple and passionfruit one by Dominique Crenn, a blueberry-capirinha flavor from Manu Buffara in Brazil, that uses local California blueberries and cachaca from Portland. There was a plain rose hibiscus Turkish delight, their original flavor.
TWILLEY: Then Nathan showed us a rack of what honestly looked like little chunks of dark grey-brown dirt. And he told us that this particular Turkish delight flavor is just called Dirt.
COZZOLINO: it’s a Kokuto sugar, a black Japanese sugar with activated charcoal, pickled shiso leaf, cacao, candy cap mushrooms, Maldon salt.
GRABER: That sounds amazing.
TWILLEY: That sounds so delicious.
COZZOLINO: And the idea was to use all the fruit purees we had leftover from recent recipes, or the ones that would work well together, and then coat them in something that looked exactly like compost.
GRABER: Oh, yeah.
TWILLEY: Yeah, I’ll try it! Thank you. The description is too good not to.
GRABER: I know.
TWILLEY: Look at this. It does look like really good compost.
GRABER: Oh my god, that’s delicious.
TWILLEY: Nathan launched his company with a handful of friends because they wanted to do something different in the edibles space—something that had the same values and sourcing as the kind of food they liked to eat. They settled on Turkish Delight as a worthy vehicle for their elevated flavors—it’s squidgy, delicious, and it resonated with them as a kind of magical treat.
COZZOLINO: Yes, I was a child of the 80s and read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
GRABER: What makes Rose particularly unusual in the edibles business is that they’re one of the only companies that uses rosin in their candy. You might remember this from the last episode—rosin is the sticky sap-like stuff that the flower exudes. Most companies don’t use that, they use what’s called distillate, pure distilled THC or CBD.
COZZOLINO: For that you put a bunch of usually low grade byproduct material from the flower into a big stainless steel vessel and rinse it with some sort of chemical solvent like ethanol, CO2, butane.
COZZOLINO: Then you make a crude oil and further refine the crude oil into a distillate. And lots of people do this because it’s a process that was designed for scalability. But it’s a process that destroys a lot of the natural chemical compounds of the plant, and isolates only one, let’s say CBD or THC.
TWILLEY: This is pretty recent technology—people started playing around with these distillates in the 70s, but they didn’t hit the market until the start of the 21st century.
COZZOLINO: Some people prefer it because it’s flavorless but I don’t think it is totally flavorless. It’s usually the, like, sugar concentration and other flavorings that they use that mask it. Cannabis is bitter, like our flower rosin kind of has a chicory-like bitterness often, depending on the flower that we’re using. Distillate, I’ve never had a distillate where I was like, ooh, that was, that’s like a flavor that I like and will remember. It’s usually either forgettable or unpleasant.
TWILLEY: Distillate is also what allows edible makers today to make gummies that only have pure THC or pure CBD, rather than the mix of hundreds of chemicals that the cannabis plant makes naturally.
GRABER: We talked about THC last episode. It’s the psychoactive compound in cannabis and it’s the one that’s really behind that high feeling. CBD is another compound in cannabis, cannabidiol, and it doesn’t get you high but it does seem to be linked to other effects in our bodies—we promise to get into the science of each of them later this episode.
TWILLEY: Like Nathan says, he prefers to use the whole cannabis flower, and all the chemicals that are in it—to him, it’s like eating an orange rather than taking vitamin C.
GRABER: We walked with Nathan over to the machine that presses the flower buds to extract that rosin, and while we waited for it to power up, we smelled some of varietals of cannabis flowers he had in the factory that day.
COZZOLINO: This would be interesting for you to smell, Scooby Snacks. This might have like a little bit of sweetness but it’s like predominantly gassy.
TWILLEY: It really did smell like petrol—like the stuff that comes out of the pump. Nathan told us some strains smell that way.
COZZOLINO: This is a Sunset Sherbert that has some like gassy parents genetics in here. But it is more round and sweet.
TWILLEY: It’s sweeter and it’s a little like nuttier or something. I don’t know.
GRABER: That one’s like, yeah. That one’s super veggie, like the vegetal is…
MANAUGH: It’s almost like seaweed, whereas that smelled like gasoline.
TWILLEY: Oh it’s got a kelpy note, that’s right.
GRABER: Then Nathan brought over a third bag.
TWILLEY: Oh, yeah, that’s so sweet.
GRABER: Oh my gosh. It’s like grapefruit. It’s like a little acidic and very, it’s like hoppy kind of.
TWILLEY: Nathan thinks about cannabis varietals the way Cynthia and I think about wine varietals—where I might choose a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc one night and a French Chardonnay the next, Nathan is choosing which fruit flavors to pair with the kelp notes of his locally grown Sunset Sherbet.
GRABER: But while you can smell different aromas super strongly in the bags of flowers, then all those flowers have to get smushed in a machine to get a small amount of rosin off them. I wondered what that did to the smell.
TWILLEY: Joey and Tanya were the smushmasters that day. Joey put a whole heap of dried cannabis flowers—they look a little bit like greenish chamomile tea or like dried hops if you’ve ever seen those—he put them into a mesh bag, and carefully tucked the edges under.
JOEY: So we have to do like kind of a special tuck in here so that when the oil comes out, one, that the flower doesn’t squeeze out of the bag, but two, so that it’s not so big that it catches all the oil in there. Because for us it’s like literally like every half gram you know is like gold for us. Oh yeah. Ready Tanya?
GRABER: They spread some baking paper over the machine for the rosin to drop onto.
COZZOLINO: We’re watching now the pressure and then we have a time here. And so you can see the pressure is like a little bit under 2000 right now and then we’ll let it kind of warm up and then we’ll start cranking it up higher.
GRABER: The machine simultaneously heated up the flowers to about 210 degrees, and it also pressed down on them. When the pressure got up to about 2500 pounds per square inch, then something started to appear at the crease of the press.
COZZOLINO: It’s like a slow drip. It kind of looks like maple syrup. Or like, you know a tree sap. Oh there we go!
GRABER: Oh! Oh, it looks like burnt caramel!
TWILLEY: This looks like the caramel edge of a cake. If you were frosting with a caramel sauce. It’s beautiful.
GRABER: It’s beautiful.
TWILLEY: It looked really good, so we leaned in for a sniff.
GRABER: It does smell good.
TWILLEY: The temptation, because it looks so much like caramel, is to get a spoon.
GRABER: That would be a very bad idea.
JOEY: Clear your schedule for a couple days.
TWILLEY: Gradually the machine cranked up to 7000 pounds of pressure per square inch, to get every last drop of rosin out of the flowers. Joey said they often let it cool down and press it again, just so nothing is wasted. The rosin itself is gorgeous—the one we saw looked like warm sparkly golden caramel. But Nathan said depending on the flower, it can even be bluish.
GRABER: After they squeezed as much as possible, they spread the paper with the rosin on it out on a table and quickly, as quickly as possible, Joey scraped it off the paper into a bowl to collect every last tiny drop. Of course he wore gloves as he did it, because if that stuff got in contact with his skin? He’d feel it.
JOEY: So and each each strain is different. Some of them are like harder or more sticky or more oily. And then the better you get at it, if you can do it without ripping the paper, then it’s a good day.
TWILLEY: At this point, it had basically turned into taffy.
JOEY: And the more it cools, the harder it’ll get.
TWILLEY: So a half pound of flowers—that’s like a bag the size of those pre-washed salads you get at the supermarket—from that, Joey and Tanya squeezed out 30 grams of rosin. 30 grams is less than two tablespoons. That’s why using rosin is so artisanal compared to distillate—and why most companies don’t use it.
GRABER: The very strongest piece of Turkish delight they sell has 10 milligrams of THC, BUT one tiny gram of rosin, like a drop of rosin, it has 60 milligrams of THC, so each drop is like enough for 6 pieces of their very strongest candy.
TWILLEY: Which is why Joey and Tanya took such care to get every last little droplet of rosin—like Joey said, it’s like gold for them.
GRABER: Another thing that means, though, is that the different terpene aromas and flavors from any one particular varietal, Nathan cares about those differences himself, but he does admit that that there’s so little rosin, the flavors probably get lost in the candy.
COZZOLINO: I don’t know about flavor. Flavor for smoking for certain. But you get such like a subtle release of the terpenes from the flower in these delights at five milligrams, to where I don’t think anyone will ever come in and say hey, I prefer the flavor or taste of this…
TWILLEY: Another thing Nathan cares about, but is realistic about, is any potential health benefits for what he’s making. He personally found cannabis really useful when he was going through chemo for cancer in his late 20s. He was finding it really hard to keep food down and cannabis helped him eat again. But he isn’t going to make scientific claims that he can’t back up.
COZZOLINO: Like, I don’t know what’s going on with the chemicals inside my body and how things are impacting other things. But I do know it, like, greatly helps to relax and unwind before a meal. And so I think being able to lighten up and laugh—laughter during a meal is huge. If you can get high and laugh during a meal, then I think you’re helping your body. That’s pretty much the extent we’ve gone for any sort of scientific studies. It’s like, hey, we think laughing during a meal will do you good. And it helps to relax. And these things are for pleasure. And we all know, pleasure definitely helps. No one’s gonna argue against that. So that those are our claims, but none of them are represented on the box.
GRABER: Nathan doesn’t put any scientific claims at all on his boxes of Turkish delight, but plenty of other companies do. They claim to help you sleep, or ease your anxiety and calm you down, or pep you up and have you dancing all night long.
TWILLEY: So is there any science behind these claims? That’s where we’re going next, after this break.
ADIE RAE: So I started studying cannabis as an undergrad in 2003-ish. And my central hypothesis at the time was: Can we use cannabis to diminish the negative side effects of opioids?
GRABER: We went to visit scientist Adie Rae where she works, at the Legacy Research Institute in Portland Oregon. If you’re looking for her research online, she publishes under the name Adie Wilson-Poe. Most of her research is about pain and pain management.
TWILLEY: To understand why cannabis and the chemicals in it— the cannabinoids like THC—why these chemicals might help with pain, you have to start with the system that they interact with in our bodies. It’s called the endocannabinoid system.
GRABER: Endocannabinoids literally means the cannabinoids we produce endogenously—natively—in our own bodies, and it’s called that because we only discovered the endocannabinoid system and these native chemicals after we’d figured out what cannabinoids were in pot, and that they interacted with this system in our bodies. We only identified these receptors in the early 90s.
TWILLEY: Which then helped scientists discover the homemade endogenous chemicals that trigger that same system, which previously we had no idea were there. It took cannabis to help us understand our own biology.
RAE: So the endocannabinoid system is a very old system. And when I mean old, I mean evolutionarily old. It is in birds and fish and even some nematodes. It is a critical component to the way our body regulates itself. So the process of homeostasis is where you have a push and pull on a certain phenomenon like sleep. Sometimes you need to be alert. Sometimes you need to be sleepy, sometimes you need to be hungry. Sometimes you need to feel satiety. And so that push and pull, regulating that balance is called homeostasis. And pretty much wherever we have homeostasis, the endocannabinoid system has some kind of involvement. I almost like to think of the endocannabinoid system as like the air traffic control mechanism for our entire physiological process.
GRABER: There are receptors for these homemade cannabinoids all over our bodies. Yes, they’re in our brain, and they affect things like how hungry we feel and how relaxed we are, but they’re also in our reproductive system and the system that regulates whether we feel hot or cold. They are really all over.
TWILLEY: One way you might feel your body’s own endogenous cannabinoids in action is a runner’s high, but these homemade chemicals and their receptors are doing lots of other basic day-to-day things too. But why would a plant have evolved chemicals that trigger this system in our bodies?
RAE: You know, I can’t answer that, why, but it is true. You know, it’s also why does coffee make adenosine receptor antagonists that happen to interact with our body? This is just a circumstance of life on Earth.
GRABER: It’s like how poppies make opioids. And just like poppies are, it seems, the only source of plant-based opioids, cannabis seems to be the only plant that makes all these super potent cannabinoids. There is a cannabinoid in black truffles and in chocolate called anandamide, but that’s it for the plant world. Cannabis is an outlier in how many of these chemicals it makes and how strongly they affect our system.
TWILLEY: But the cannabinoids that cannabis makes are slightly different from the ones our bodies make.
RAE: They’re not identical, but they are very similar. Yeah, so the ones that our body produces itself are very unstable. They have a very short lifetime, and they’re broken down very quickly. The ones that come from the plant are broken down much more slowly.
GRABER: So they’re not the same, but they do act on the same system. So we wanted to know: what exactly are these plant cannabinoids from cannabis doing in our body?
RAE: Yeah, so the one that I can speak to with the most certainty is the pain one because that’s the field that I’ve been, you know, in my entire career: Is how do we use cannabinoids as a pain relieving either adjunct, an additive to opioids, or an alternative to opioids.
TWILLEY: Turns out the brain’s pain HQ, this one particular region of our brain that is really important in moderating the experience of pain—it has its very own receptors—some that respond to the opioids our bodies produce and some for the cannabinoids our bodies produce. And, of course, that means it’s sensitive to the plant versions of those chemicals.
GRABER: Opioids are prescribed today for pain because they interact with the receptors in that brain pain management area really really well, but it turns out that pretty recent research has shown that THC does that too.
TWILLEY: And there are some advantages to using THC over opioids.
RAE: The thing with opioids that makes them difficult to use is that they’re dangerous. The way that opioids kill people is by turning off respiration. So people just stop breathing. And that side effect doesn’t happen with cannabis. The other thing that happens with opioids is they are also really good at stimulating the reward circuitry. They’re too good at it. Right? They hijack the brain’s reward circuitry. So they both do similar things in terms of you know, making a person feel like: Ooh, that felt good, I might do that, again. That’s reinforcing. So they’re similar in that way, but they’re very different in the magnitude of that reinforcement.
TWILLEY: Adie told us that you can see this difference really clearly in rats. For years, researchers couldn’t even figure out how to persuade rats to voluntarily dose themselves with THC, whereas if you put those same rats in a cage with opioids, they very quickly figure out how to consume it and then consume some more of it.
GRABER: And that’s a significant part of why we have an opioid crisis today where people are prescribed opioids and then get addicted, and also where people die of overdoses. But cannabis? Scientists say it’s unlikely that overdosing on cannabis can cause death—there hasn’t been a death to date, in the medical literature. And it’s also not anywhere as addictive as opioids—we’ll get into that more in a minute.
TWILLEY: But Adie says that cannabis doesn’t work for everyone—some people don’t like the psychoactive side effects, some people just don’t respond well to it in general. But for most people, it could be a really useful pain management tool.
RAE: And so, really it could it be that you use cannabis in addition to opioids immediately after a very painful event, and then slowly transition away from the opioids—and you can use cannabis over a longer period of time with fewer risks. Not to say that there are zero risks, but there are much fewer risks. And of course, it’s nonlethal.
GRABER: That sounds great. But how about all the other things that pot is supposed to do? I know people who have taken it to help them sleep, and to help them deal with anxiety. I’ve heard about using it for PTSD—what do we know?
RAE: So the scientific literature has done a better job, or a more thorough job, of characterizing the pain relieving effects of cannabis. And we’re slowly getting better at characterizing the other reported benefits. Sleep benefits, mood benefits, and some other you know, more specific things like tremors with Parkinson’s. And you know, there’s a lot of people using a lot of cannabis products for many reasons. But in some way that shouldn’t surprise us because we talked earlier about how the endocannabinoid system has a hand in all of our processes. So of course, if you have Crohn’s and chronic inflammation in your gut, the endocannabinoid system is playing a huge role in that inflammation. So of course, cannabis and THC containing cannabis is going to be useful there. It’s just that because of research barriers, and because of the huge amount of reasons that people are using cannabis, and the actual complexity of the product itself, it’s just very difficult to systematically characterize all these effects.
TWILLEY: There are a handful of cannabis-derived drugs on the market these days—one for epilepsy, and a couple for helping with nausea and appetite loss due to chemo or AIDS. And there are more and more clinical trials coming down the line. But really, like Adie says, there’s not a lot of good evidence yet for a lot of the cannabis health claims.
RAE: What we have right now is a lot of community-defined evidence or self-report evidence, people who are using real world cannabis and then using a health tracker or an app of some sort to report: Yeah, this is how much THC is in my flower, and this is how much anxiety relief or sleep improvement I experience. But that self-report data is of much lower quality than the randomized, controlled clinical trials that we would all like to see with cannabis.
GRABER: And here is where the politics we talked about in our last episode are important. Remember, during the Nixon era, cannabis got classified as a Schedule 1 drug, which meant that it was seen as more dangerous than basically almost anything else, and had zero benefit. It also meant that the only way scientists were allowed to study it was to study how badly it would harm you.
TWILLEY: In the US, scientists wanting to study the effects of cannabis were cut off from the biggest source of funding for medicine, the National Institutes of Health. Instead, they had to get their funding from a much smaller institution within the NIH called NIDA, which can only fund research into the harms that drugs cause, not any potential benefits.
GRABER: And in case you’re wondering whether we were an outlier here in terms of preventing research into cannabis, we weren’t. Over the course of the 1900s, cannabis became illegal nearly everywhere, and, as a result, there wasn’t much investment of research funding or effort into any potential medical benefits of the drug. This has only really started to pick up in Europe, Canada, and in Israel in the past decade or so.
TWILLEY: Over on this side of the pond, Adie told us it wasn’t just the source of the money that was the problem, it was also the particular cannabis plants that US scientists have been allowed to use in their research.
RAE: Since the 60s, the University of Mississippi and specifically through the National Institute on Drug Abuse has had a monopoly on getting cannabis to study the effects of cannabis.
TWILLEY: When Adie or any other scientist wanted to study cannabis, they couldn’t go down to the dispensary like everyone else. They could only get it from the University of Mississippi, which grows pot for the federal government on 12 acres of heavily secured land.
RAE: What’s really interesting about that product is that it is in no way similar to the cannabis that is found in regulated markets worldwide. So there was a really beautiful paper that came out in around 2017, which did this really fancy mathematical analysis, principal components analysis. And they showed that that product is chemically distinct from every other product that humans are using. So not only do we have no money, and we have one source of cannabis for research purposes, but that quote cannabis is chemically dissimilar from all other cannabis on the planet.
GRABER: But that changed literally this past May, because now more companies are licensed to grow different cannabis plants for science. And as for funding, now scientists can also study the health effects, too, not just the harm.
TWILLEY: But what this history all means is that there is a lot we do not know about what cannabis does in our bodies. And another layer of complexity, to get back to edibles—researchers can’t just assume that if they study the effects of smoking cannabis, that the same will be true if you eat it. In fact, they’re different.
GRABER: As we mentioned in the last episode, the first major difference between eating and smoking is how quickly you feel it—smoking cannabis puts the active chemicals straight into your lungs and then from there right into your blood, and your blood is like a superhighway to your brain. But when you eat cannabis, your liver first has to process it, and so it takes a long time before you feel the effects.
TWILLEY: And then when you do feel them, they’re different because the liver does stuff. It turns THC into a different form of THC, one that’s 20 times more potent.
RAE: So that’s why an edible cannabis experience can often be much more intense than consuming cannabis in other ways, because you’re recruiting that very powerful molecule.
GRABER: And also that particular molecule sticks around for a long time. It doesn’t break down as quickly as the THC that gets directly into your blood from smoking, it just hangs on and keeps firing up your brain. So you feel high for a lot longer, too.
TWILLEY: But THC isn’t the only cannabinoid in town. The one you see a lot of hype about these days is CBD—it’s supposed to be helpful for chronic pain, insomnia, depression, anxiety, gut issues—I mean, people say it even improves your memory, promotes hair growth, and can help your pet dog deal with separation anxiety. There’s almost nothing it can’t do, if you believe everything you read on the labels.
GRABER: One thing I had wondered about is why I can get CBD at my local healthfood store—and now I know—it’s because the cannabis grown for THC does contain CBD, but CBD is also in hemp, the kind of cannabis plants that don’t get you high.
TWILLEY: This is the side of the cannabis family that evolved in the lowlands, with no need for sunscreen. Those were the plants that were grown for centuries in Europe for rope making.
GRABER: Hemp had been illegal to grow in the US because even the non-THC plant got caught up in the drug wars, but finally, just a few years ago, hemp once again became totally legal to grow anywhere in the US. So it’s federally legal to extract CBD from hemp, and legal to put it into supplements and food and shampoo and oil that supposedly can help boost your puppy’s happiness.
TWILLEY: And it’s legal to say anything you want about it, because supplements aren’t regulated as medicines, which is a total horror show that we went into in our vitamin episode.
GRABER: It’s not like there aren’t any potential benefits from CBD—the new epilepsy drug Epidiolex is CBD-based. There have been a few studies that show some benefits for anxiety, and a few others that show it can help with chronic pain, and with nausea and vomiting that comes with chemo.
TWILLEY: Adie says it makes sense that CBD would have some benefits—again, it’s triggering this super important biological system in our bodies. But it turns out that eating CBD or drinking it—yeah, that actually is a scam.
RAE: It’s basically pointless.
GRABER: When your liver processes CBD, the chemical almost disappears.
RAE: For THC, when you swallow, you know, a certain amount you have a certain amount bioavailable. CBD oral bioavailability is much lower, as low as 5%. So if you’re taking you know, like a 100 milligram you know, CBD capsule or something, you might get five milligrams into your bloodstream. And that’s a whopping dose, right? A hundred.
TWILLEY: A lot of these products have like twenty milligrams max. Lots are just five or ten milligrams. By the time your liver is done with that, you’re basically getting a zero milligram dose of CBD.
GRABER: Adie says there is some evidence that CBD does build up in your body.
RAE: So if you take 35 to 50 milligrams of oral CBD every single day, it will accumulate in your blood and there will be probably some anti inflammatory, anti oxidative, potentially anxiety relieving effect of that bio accumulation. But if you’re like just at the coffee shop and like oh, yeah, give me a CBD, you’re just like wasting $3.
GRABER: So now you know. All those CBD products out there, all that tea and honey and sodas and even Martha’s probably super tasty pate de fruits? Save your money and buy some of the CBD-free versions instead.
TWILLEY: That said, there are other ways to get CBD into your body that don’t go through your liver—you can put it on your skin, you can put a tincture under your tongue, those both get it right to your blood and muscles. You can obviously also smoke CBD. Just don’t expect to be getting a dose of CBD with that 20 milligram gummy or soda.
GRABER: But if you do feel like that soda is helping you feel calmer, well, that might be true. Because if you believe that something is going to relax you, it might really relax you. The placebo effect is very strong and scientifically demonstrated to often work. So it’s probably just that.
TWILLEY: OK, so this is what we know about the biology of eating cannabis, as well as what we do and don’t know about its possible benefits. But as with all things cannabis, there’s a bunch more we don’t know. Adie says there’s a lot of individual variation in how people metabolize different cannabinoids, sometimes it can even depend on what you’ve had for breakfast.
GRABER: Also, as Adie pointed out, there are more than 200 chemicals in cannabis. A lot of them do interact with the big one, THC, and with our bodies.
RAE: There’s at least 114 different cannabinoids. And on top of that, the plant also makes things like terpenoids or terpenes, flavonoids, which are also found in wine and lots of other plants. So all in all, a whole plant, the whole bud, the whole cannabis flower will produce scores of molecules, many of which have biological activity. And so the result of consuming a cannabis product is basically a sum total of all of those different molecules doing their individual jobs like a symphony.
TWILLEY: It’s unsurprisingly super difficult to tease out what 200 biologically active molecules are all doing and how they’re all interacting. Not to mention that different cannabis plants produce those molecules in different ratios. Some cannabinoids are even known to counteract each other—like there’s one cannabinoid that can take away your appetite, even though cannabis in general is famous for giving you the munchies
RAE: But for sure, we know that you know, what THC does by itself is going to be totally different than what it does in the presence of other molecules.
GRABER: THC certainly can get you high on its own and even do those other good things like help manage pain. But there’s also some evidence that CBD and even some of the flavor terpenes modulate THC, like they can help make sure that you don’t have a bad high, a bad experience overall.
TWILLEY: Nathan’s Rose Delights contain all the chemicals from the cannabis flower for that reason. But most edibles, because their makers work with distillate, they just contain a certain number of milligrams of pure THC, or pure CBD, or both. To Adie, that’s a solo performance or maybe a duet.
RAE: Whereas especially a sun-grown flower with a whole variety of chemicals inside of it. That’s when you’re really getting this orchestral type experience. And the more molecules that are in there, really the more chance you have of those things interacting with THC, buffering against the negative side effects of THC, and giving you a much more nuanced different experience than that pure one note experience.
GRABER: Because here’s the thing—pot won’t kill you. But it might make you really unhappy. A friend of ours ate too much of a pot brownie at a party and was literally crying in the corner for like hours. It can make you paranoid, it can make you nauseous,
TWILLEY: Geoff ate an entire bag of weed as a teen before he was supposed to get on a Greyhound bus. Then, when the bus didn’t show up, he wound up convinced the entire company was a hoax, and there were no buses, but no one had dared report the truth yet.
GRABER: Plus as we said if you have a bad experience on edibles—which is more likely than smoking, because it takes so long to hit you—you are stuck in that unpleasant break from reality for a really really long time.
RAE: Another thing we know for sure is the younger you start using THC, the more likely it is that it’s going to have long lasting negative impacts. So you know, we have tons and tons of data out there showing us that it is a very bad idea to put THC in your brain before it’s done developing, which is about the age 21, 22. So you know… and it’s not to say that all those folks who started dabbling in their teens ended up on some terrible path.
TWILLEY: Fortunately, because otherwise I and most of my friends would be screwed. But what Adie’s saying is something that’s true of alcohol and other drugs, too—in young, developing brains, they will create changes in brain matter and brain connectivity. With alcohol, we know those changes are long lasting; but Adie said there’s some evidence that the brain can reset with cannabis. That said, she did have some advice for younger listeners.
RAE: If you’re listening to this, and you’re not 21, just wait. Just wait! It’s fine. It’s not going anywhere. And in fact, the longer you wait, the better weed you’re going to get. So just, if you’re not 21, just wait. You know, give your brain a chance to like, get all the way through college.
TWILLEY: Speaking of our younger listeners, with edibles especially, there’s an issue that because they are candy and they look like candy, that kids will accidentally consume them. Responsible companies package their stuff in kid proof containers but parents do need to be extra careful.
GRABER: Also, and this is for a relatively small group of people, pot can trigger mental illness.
RAE: If you have a history of psychosis in your family, this might be something to approach with an extreme degree of caution. If you have ever had a psychotic episode, you know, again, approach with caution. And there’s definitely lots of reports of young people who have had their first psychotic event because they took a very high dose of cannabis. So there’s some relationship there. It’s not all, you know, like the terrible, fear mongering stuff that we see in the media from time to time, but that relationship is real. So be careful.
TWILLEY: And then if you’re one of the roughly nine percent of the population with a tendency toward addiction, well, you can’t get hooked on cannabis the way you do with opioids or alcohol, where you are chemically dependent on them.
RAE: But for sure, this is a rewarding substance, which like anything that is rewarding—gambling, shopping, Instagram—all of those things can be used to the point where they create maladaptive adaptations in your life, such that you’re spending more time doing this thing than doing other things that should matter.
GRABER: We took all these warnings on board—
TWILLEY: —and then we decided we still needed to enjoy some edibles ourselves.
GRABER: Adie had pointed out how important it is to work up slowly if you’ve never had them before. I was a total weed virgin. So I started with one milligram one night, felt nothing, worked up over a few nights to four milligrams, then I felt a little spinny and seasick, and I never tried again.
TWILLEY: Regular listeners will know that Cynthia is a sensitive flower. I started at 5 and felt almost nothing. Then one night after dinner I was fed up with being sensible, took 10 milligrams, and if I had balls, let’s just say I would have been tripping them. This is the most Angeleno thing I will potentially ever say, but I was still as high as a kite when I went to pilates the next morning, more than twelve hours later. That said, the experience was utterly delightful. I sat on the couch, I couldn’t speak or move, but I felt this incredible joy about everything and everyone.
GRABER: I had high hopes that the edibles might help with my insomnia, so I did try like 2 and 3 milligrams again a couple of nights to help me sleep, but it did nothing. That said, I’m a little intimidated to keep titrating because of how long it takes to figure out if you’ve had the right dose, and the fact that I was feeling kind of nauseous, and anyway, who has the time to be high for 12 hours? I don’t.
TWILLEY: That is exactly why I haven’t repeated this delightful experience—I feel like you have to have a slightly more open calendar than mine to really appreciate pot—at least, edibles. I mean, 12 hours?
SHANITA PENNY: Yeah, there’s no going back with the edibles. You’re in. And there have been a couple of companies that have come out with, like, the “antidote.” Trust me, there’s no coming back.
GRABER: Shanita has quite a bit of experience in this field—
PENNY: My name is Shanita Penny, and I’m a cannabis lover, entrepreneur, and policy advisor.
TWILLEY: And she’s also our guide to the arcane mysteries of making a living in the red hot market for cannabis edibles when it is still federally illegal. It’s not as straightforward as just opening up a dispensary or making some Turkish delight. That’s where we’re going next, after this break.
GRABER: Shanita had been watching the kind of slow process of cannabis legalization in Maryland, where she lives, and then she opened her own consulting business in 2015, called Budding Solutions. She helps companies navigate all the bazillions of hoops that cannabis entrepreneurs have to jump through and pay for.
TWILLEY: Starting a business, any business, involves paperwork. But Shanita said that cannabis businesses require enough paperwork to give you carpal tunnel. Figuring out how to get the licenses alone usually requires the help of an experienced consultant, like her, and a lot of cash.
TRAVELL BRADFORD: Licenses, real estate, security, staff training, inventory. Before you know it, if you don’t have a million bucks, you know, heck, if you don’t have 100,000 bucks, you stuck.
GRABER: Travell Bradford is a cannabis farmer in Oregon, and he also advises farmers new to the space. It’s not easy to get into, because cannabis is a super highly regulated industry. Everything is carefully watched over by state governments.
YOKO MIYASHITA: Let me give you just some inside like look at how closely monitored this is. Seed to sale tracking. This is, from growers through processors through distribution to point of sale to the consumer, you track the cannabis seed that goes in the ground, the plant that’s grown, the processed food that’s packaged, that goes through the distributor and then to the retailer to the end customer.
TWILLEY: This is Yoko Miyashita, she’s a lawyer by training, and she’s the CEO of Leafly, one of the largest cannabis websites out there. So this laundry list of regulations Yoko mentioned—it actually goes on. There’s a whole round of lab testing to make sure your edible contains exactly the amount of THC and CBD it says it does.
GRABER: And the costs Travell mentioned, they go on, too. There’s a lot of reasons it’s expensive to start a pot business—in part because that business is, as we’ve said many times, federally illegal.
PENNY: So you know, for everyone who thinks that this is like the gold rush green rush. You know, cannabis businesses are effectively taxed anywhere from 70 to in excess of 90%.
TWILLEY: There’s all the regular state, local, and federal taxes plus then consumers pay an additional sales tax, and then there’s another surprising tax wrinkle on top of that.
PENNY: There are no ordinary business expenses that you can write off, because this is federally illegal.
PENNY: Because it would in the eyes of the federal government be, they’d be allowing us to write off expenses associated with drug trafficking.
MIYASHITA: Normal businesses, you have income, but you deduct your costs before you calculate your taxes due, right? So think about the ordinary profit margins you would expect to see. You don’t have that ability to deduct those expenses.
TWILLEY: Being in this weird grey area—operating a business that is still federally illegal—it has a lot of repercussions I hadn’t thought of. Like another normal thing to do when you’re setting up a business is to take out a business loan. But that’s not so simple when you’re opening an edibles business.
MIYASHITA: Most of your traditional lending opportunities are closed off to this space. Because federal banks or nationally chartered banks won’t work with you, a ton of the private capital that sits out there still will not touch a federally illegal product.
GRABER: OK, let’s say you don’t need bank or government small business loans, you do somehow have the cash to start your business, and you’re okay with not being able to write off ANY of your expenses on your federal taxes, then there’s another problem: you’re not protected if your business fails, which means you’d be on the hook for any and all money you still owe. Anyone could sue you.
PENNY: So it’s really important, when you think about a bakery, you know, you think about all the folks who have a great recipe and decide to start a business and let’s, you know, be realistic, so many of them fail. A cannabis business does not have bankruptcy protection. So it is extremely risky to get into this space. And remember, you know, even after they pay all these taxes, they don’t have real support when it comes to insurance. And when it comes to just even accessing, like the PPP program that was available to a lot of people, even though this industry was deemed essential.
TWILLEY: This was a surprise to me, but 30 states, including my home state of California, declared that cannabis dispensaries were essential businesses that were allowed to stay open during COVID-19 lockdowns. And yet they weren’t eligible for any of the billions that the federal government handed out to help businesses during the pandemic.
GRABER: Another thing, you can’t drive your candy or your brownies from one state into another—
PENNY: No way. No way. It is still federally illegal. So you cannot cross state lines. And it’s unfortunate, you know, because folks don’t get to experience the consistency of, you know, a brand that has a multinational presence.
GRABER: You heard that right—nothing in your edible can cross state lines. Which means that the grapefruit gin gummy I ate? The pot was grown in Massachusetts, the distillate was made in Massachusetts, and the gummy itself had to be manufactured in Massachusetts, too.
TWILLEY: So all of you who might want to try Nathan’s delicious Rose Delights—you are SOL unless you’re in California. At least the ones that have THC in them.
GRABER: And on top of all that, Yoko told us it’s really hard to advertise your delicious, mind-altering marshmallows or macarons on a national platform! TV, radio, magazines, everything.
MIYASHITA: There are licensed cannabis companies that are regularly kicked off social media channels like Instagram, so they can’t advertise.
TWILLEY: Despite all of these obstacles and costs and regulations, plenty of people are diving into the edibles market and investing huge amounts.
MIKE WARD: Hello, I’m Mike Ward. Welcome to the American Cannabis Summit, countdown to legalization.
TWILLEY: This is the intro to an hour-long infomercial from the National Institute for Cannabis Investors, featuring none other than John Boehner, former Republican Speaker of the House, who was totally fine with voting to keep cannabis illegal even for medical use when he was in office, but now stands to make millions of dollars in the legal pot industry.
WARD: During this exclusive event, you will be taken deep inside our nation’s most controversial, most misunderstood and what’s quickly becoming our most lucrative industry. We stand at the forefront of an unstoppable economic revolution. It’s a new gold rush, a green gold rush, and it’s just getting started.
PENNY: Because we know that this industry is, you know, every day the number’s going up: Oh, 100 billion by 2024. And we’re kicking like, we’re going to totally blow that out.
MIYASHITA: You know, just for 2020 alone, the entire cannabis industry, spending cannabis, was $61 billion. But here’s the like, crazy number: of that 61 billion, only 19 of that was spent in the legal market. That leaves a $42 billion unregulated market.
TWILLEY: At least.
PENNY: I just know that the illicit market makes billions and billions and we don’t even know because some people report and pay taxes and most of them don’t. The illicit market is huge. It’s huge.
GRABER: We really wanted to understand whether the illegal market would harm a legal business by undercutting it, like their products should obviously be cheaper. But Yoko and Shanita basically didn’t want to answer the question.
TWILLEY: No one really wanted to talk about it. We were super frank with Travell, we asked if his farm was being hurt by farmers who are growing illegally.
BRADFORD: No, you know, snitches get stitches, Nicky. So I can’t give up too much information. What I can say is that, oftentimes, they see that there’s a disadvantage of entry into the legal space, because of the cost barriers of entry. So looking from it through those lenses, if I’m in the black market, and I’m in the black, I got a return on that investment. The question is, why should I go over here? Well, one would say, hey, so you don’t go to jail.
GRABER: And it turns out, people actually don’t want to go jail. Yoko told us that in every state that has legalized cannabis, the legal market has grown. Maybe people are buying legally because these are new buyers, or maybe it’s because the government regulations mean you know you’re going to get exactly what the package says you’ll be getting.
TWILLEY: But what these costs and this lack of access to loans really end up meaning is that it’s hard for people who are not already wealthy to get into the business.
MIYASHITA: And that’s an issue. You then look at what we were talking about with some of the capital issues, right? Black people comprise 14% of our population, only 2% ownership of cannabis businesses today.
TWILLEY: And that means that the people who are at risk of being left out of this cannabis gold rush are the very people who have been most harmed by the drug’s prohibition.
MIYASHITA: Look, the usage rates of cannabis across communities is consistent. It’s not like one community or one consumes at a higher rate. But then you look at incarceration rates, that for black and brown communities, they’ve been arrested for this three to four times more than whites. It’s disproportionate impact, notwithstanding usage.
GRABER: These incarceration figures are no small matter. More than 700,000 people are arrested each year for marijuana, sometimes just having a little bit for personal use, and nearly all of these people are Black or Brown—94 percent of arrests in New York City. This can lead to years and years in prison. It hurts the person arrested, it breaks up families.
TWILLEY: Even once you’re released, having a criminal record can mean that you can’t access housing assistance or other federal assistance programs. And it’s on your record for employers to see, which means you likely don’t get a call back. It can totally destroy someone’s life.
BRADFORD: I mean, when you look it up, the level of generational destruction, you’ve had families destroyed, from grandparents, to parents to the children, we probably can even say great grandparents as we go back.
GRABER: A lot of activists and entrepreneurs and even governments say it’s critical that the communities most harmed by the war on drugs be able to benefit by the drug’s legalization.
MIYASHITA: There are these big questions around how should we structure these markets? Who should be able to participate? How do we enable pathways for participation?
TWILLEY: Leafly actually put out a big report with concrete strategies for states that want to build an equitable cannabis industry. Yoko says expungement is a big one—automatically wiping previous cannabis offenses off people’s records.
GRABER: Some states are setting aside a percentage of their licenses for minority business owners.
PENNY: L.A. awarded 100 licenses to social equity applicants.
TWILLEY: That’s one piece, but Shanita says it’s just the first step.
PENNY: Secondly, creating programs that not only license these folks, but then provide all of the wraparound services that they need. You know, assistance with the application process! And better than that, streamlining the process so that it doesn’t take a six figure consultant to fill out these applications. But then, in places like Detroit, you have a program that says if you’ve been impacted or you’ve lived in this community, or you make you know, this amount of money per year, we’re waiving fees. Detroit even went as far as to take city-owned property and make it available to these qualified applicants at 25% of the market value.
GRABER: That’s an amazing break. And this could be an important opportunity for these business owners to build up generational wealth.
BRADFORD: You know, the the word reparations has been floating around. And how would that look? I’m not saying hey, just give all the Black folks and people of color, you know, cannabis dispensaries or something like that, and we shall overcome. You know, that’s not what I’m saying. That’s not gonna get the job done. But what I am saying is that creating pipelines of resources to help accelerate, like business accelerators, to really start pushing those numbers up and developing that supply chain.
TWILLEY: Travell’s excited about the opportunity for Black and Brown farmers and entrepreneurs to make money, but he’s maybe even more excited about what these businesses can mean for the entire community.
PENNY: We have a lot of work to do. But what is working today is cannabis tax revenue being reinvested into communities that were harmed. Illinois is my favorite example of this—in their first year of adult use sales they deployed $32 million back into the community. So what we’re seeing now is cannabis tax revenue doing good.
GRABER: These aren’t cannabis-related organizations and businesses, it’s just money back into the community, like for after-school programming in low-income neighborhoods.
TWILLEY: The biggest deal of all, though, would be making these changes at the federal level. Which is pretty much what a new piece of legislation introduced by senators Booker, Schumer, and Wyden aims to do. Here’s Cory Booker and Chuck Schumer at a press conference introducing the act.
PRESS CONFERENCE CLIP
CORY BOOKER: This is the first time in American history the majority leader of the United States Senate is leading the call to end prohibition of marijuana.
CHUCK SCHUMER: As my colleagues and I have said before, the war on drugs has really been a war on people, particularly people of color. The Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act would help put an end to the unfair targeting and treatment of communities of color by removing cannabis from the federal list of controlled substances.
BOOKER: This bill is urgent. This bill is long past due.
GRABER: First of all, the new bill decriminalizes cannabis. That means the states decide whether there’s a legal business, and if it’s legal, then the federal government says great, it’s legal there by us, too. So you pay your taxes, you have access to federal assistance and tax write-offs and insurance and bankruptcy protection, you’re just a normal business.
TWILLEY: But this bill also has some of the elements of restorative justice that Shanita, Yoko, and Travell told us are so important to address the harms of the war on drugs—the expungement, the community investment, and more.
GRABER: Congress is on recess right now, but in September they’ll be coming back to work, and Shanita hopes that this is something that gets through—although she knows it’s an uphill battle.
PENNY: Because realistically, if it doesn’t happen in this session, it’s not happening for two years. And then that’s like a sad story, so I don’t want to talk about that!
TWILLEY: Fingers crossed. Either way, though, change is coming. Yoko sees state after state opting to legalize so they don’t miss out on the revenue to their neighbors.
GRABER: And big business is getting into the cannabis world. The big alcohol companies, they’ve invested billions of dollars in cannabis. This a new, potentially hugely profitable and booming market for them. Nathan is a little worried about his small, labor-intensive high-end Turkish delight factory.
COZZOLINO: People speculate, hey, tobacco and alcohol in two years is going to just come in, once federal banking is allowed, and they’re going to roll up all of these brands.
And then once that happens as a small operator, it’s going to be impossible to compete with what they’re able to achieve through economies of scale. So, you know, that’s a negative outlook. I don’t think, I don’t know. I think it just depends on what direction society goes over the course of the next few years.
TWILLEY: More likely, according to Yoko and Shanita, is that there’s going to be room for both—the same way you can choose a Coors or a craft beer, you’ll be able to choose from a big brand blue raspberry flavored sour gummy made from distillate, or one of Nathan’s whole flower fruit forward chef driven artisanal Turkish delights.
GRABER: There is one thing that Nicky and I do really want to emphasize, and it’s how important it is if you’re buying, buy on the legal market. It’s not just that illegal growers don’t necessarily pay taxes.
TWILLEY: In California, illegal cannabis farmers are stealing water from streams and watersheds that are already in a severe drought, leaving the creatures that live there high and dry. And some illegal farmers are growing in national forests, and using unsafe levels of pesticides and herbicides and that level of environmental destruction is not OK at all.
GRABER: And the folks working on those illegal farms are not protected under labor laws and are often treated quite badly. Plus, not a small number of these illegal growers and sellers are connected to the same people in Central and South America who are murdering judges and politicians and journalists.
PENNY: You know, in my experience, there’s still a lot of cartel influence. There’s still just a lot of unsavory influence, right. And that’s why it’s so important for us to regulate this in a real way, at every level: City, state and federally.
TWILLEY: Honestly, you should choose your edibles the same way and with the same thoughtfulness you choose any of the foods you consume. Just because it’s a drug doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think about whether the way it’s grown and produced is OK with you.
GRABER: And if edibles are not legal in your state, well, push for legalization! That’s what Shanita’s doing, on a national level these days.
PENNY: But I’ll tell you, we’ve come a long way. I’ve consumed cannabis for over half my life. And I am grateful every day that I get to wake up and consume it freely, to advocate for it, and to help build businesses that I think are going to change the world.
TWILLEY: Thanks this episode to Nathan Cozzolino, Adie Rae, Shanita Penny, Travell Bradford, and Yoko Miyashita. We have links to their products, research, and businesses on our website, gastropod dot com.
GRABER: Thanks so much to Sonja Swanson, our superstar producer, without whom this episode would be nothing. And thanks also to Saima Sidik who has been with us from MIT this summer.
TWILLEY: Finally, I’m going to reward all of you who listen to the end—thank you!—with a hot tip. As you know, Gastropod is now partnered with Eater, and if you go to Eater dot com, you will find some fun extras, including Alia’s mom’s original sticky fingers brownie recipe, as well as our food adventures on the road reporting this episode! Check it out.
GRABER: We’ll be back in two weeks, til then!