DENVER — Sweet Grass Kitchen offers confections worthy of a Pearl District bake shop: truffle brownies, chocolate chip cookies and peanut butter cupcakes shot through with strawberry jam.
One essential ingredient sets Sweet Grass Kitchen’s treats apart: They’re laced with marijuana.
Pot-infused products are a growing, lucrative market in places where medical marijuana is legal, currently 18 states and Washington, D.C. Yet states often overlook cannabis-infused products in their medical marijuana programs, industry experts say. Oregon does not regulate or even track businesses that make or sell such products.
In Colorado, makers of products containing cannabis face the same extensive regulation as growers and dispensary operators.
Two-thirds of patients nationally choose dispensaries based in part on their offerings of marijuana-infused products, a survey by Medical Marijuana Business Daily found, and Colorado dispensaries have responded to that demand.
Walk into one of the state’s 500 state-licensed medical marijuana centers and you’re likely to find a staggering array of marijuana-laced gumdrops, lozenges, mints, teas, mouth sprays, sodas, fruit drinks and chocolate bars along with jars of dried marijuana. All are produced in one of the state’s 140 licensed facilities.
“Marijuana isn’t just about smoking anymore,” said Chris Walsh, editor of Medical Marijuana Business Daily. “You can pretty much get this in any form, whether it’s a pill, cream, pizza, marijuana-infused butter, ice cream. The possibilities are limitless.”
In Colorado, it’s not unusual for companies making cannabis-infused products to generate $250,000 to $500,000 in annual sales, Walsh said. A few have revenues exceeding $1 million a year.
For Julie Berliner, a 27-year-old University of Colorado grad who founded Sweet Grass Kitchen, starting a pot bakery wasn’t on her short list of careers when she graduated in 2008 with a degree in elementary education. Berliner applied to more than two dozen teaching jobs before exploring other options.
She started baking marijuana-infused chocolate chip cookies for a friend’s medical marijuana dispensary. At the time, Colorado didn’t have rules for operations like Berliner’s or for dispensaries, so she baked her cookies at home. They were a hit.
In 2010 the state introduced rules for the industry. Companies making marijuana-infused products can’t share space with nonmarijuana production outfits. Security cameras record everything that takes place in Berliner’s kitchen.
Paper trail kept
The state requires Berliner to record the movement of her products, a process that takes several hours a week. She documents where the baked goods are headed, who is delivering them, the car they’ll travel in and the route they’ll take.
“They want to make sure they know where the product is at any given time,” said Berliner.
But the state’s medical marijuana enforcement division has been so understaffed that for a long time Berliner rarely received confirmation that officials received her manifest.
“That takes a lot of manpower and a lot of money,” she said of her efforts to comply with local and state rules. “But they aren’t even responding half the time.”
On a recent visit to Berliner’s business, one of her bakers wore a temporary ID badge because of the enforcement division’s backlog in processing criminal background checks. Berliner’s state-issued badge hung from a lanyard marked “Colorado Medical Marijuana Enforcement.”
The pungent smell of marijuana mingled with the scent of peanut butter as baker Marissa Proa, 28, a culinary school grad, scooped dough for PBJ cups out of a 20-quart mixer bowl.
Tall metal shelves hold containers of flour, sugar, peanut butter, vanilla extract, Hershey’s chocolate and honey. Marijuana is stored in sealed plastic bags in a commercial refrigerator. Sweet Grass Kitchen is on track to go through up to 300 pounds of cannabis this year, Berliner said.
Berliner buys processed marijuana from state-licensed growers and mixes it with sweet cream butter. The concoction simmers in crockpots on low heat for 72 hours, then cools and is triple strained.
The result: a mossy-colored butter rich in marijuana.
Berliner declined to discuss her company’s revenues, but her bakers turn out 2,000 baked goods a week that retail for about $5 each.
She’s happy to be working in a state considered the vanguard of a new, for-profit medical marijuana industry.
“It’s a very young industry,” Berliner said. “We are the guinea pigs in a sense.”
— Noelle Crombie