Opening a black shell case to display his wares on an early May afternoon, a marijuana dealer in Brooklyn began pulling out a wide variety of edibles that were nestled among vape pens and jars of flower. Some products were obviously homemade — but with packaging that appropriated popular brand names.

Round, multi-colored “Skittles” gummies came in a plastic jar, and the “Pez” hard candies were sold in little tins. A chocolate bar with a Hershey’s logo was labeled “600 milligrams per bar,” presumably of THC, the ingredient in cannabis that gets you high.

Among the products offered by this citywide delivery service, smokeable flower is still the most popular. But edibles now make up 30% to 40% of sales, according to its operator, who spoke with Gothamist but asked to be anonymous because he sells marijuana illegally.

New York only legalized marijuana in March 2021, and the state has yet to issue licenses for non-medical dispensaries. But that hasn’t stopped an explosion of edibles from entering the market in recent years. As state-by-state legalization has introduced packaged edibles to other parts of the country over the past decade or so, it has sparked consumer demand — and confectionary creativity among cannabis purveyors — in legal and non-legal markets alike.

One delivery service in the city sells a wide range of edibles, including some that appropriate the names of popular candies. Others also mimic the packaging and logos.

One delivery service in the city sells a wide range of edibles, including some that appropriate the names of popular candies. Others also mimic the packaging and logos.

arrow
One delivery service in the city sells a wide range of edibles, including some that appropriate the names of popular candies. Others also mimic the packaging and logos.
Caroline Lewis

But edibles have also gained more attention from politicians and regulators in recent years who say playful packaging is too appealing to kids who could accidentally ingest large amounts of THC. Poison centers in New York have issued warnings as recently as last summer about children and teens eating edibles that look like candy.

As some packaging becomes more sophisticated, there may be confusion among some adults as well. The delivery service operator Gothamist spoke to, for instance, sells strawberry-flavored sour belts, packaged in a sleek, opaque zip-lock bag like the ones commonly used for cannabis products sold in licensed dispensaries.

This particular bag features the name of a regulated cannabis brand based in California and an official-looking warning telling users to “Keep out of reach of animals and children.” But the amount of THC listed — 1,000 milligrams for the whole bag — suggests that it is a copycat. That’s 10 times the amount of THC per package that California allows.

New York has yet to develop its rules around edibles, but New Jersey recently opened its first licensed dispensaries with only clinical-looking ingestible products such as lozenges and capsules and a 100-milligram cap on the THC content per package.

Yet as regulators seek to restrict the potency and types of edibles sold in licensed dispensaries, the broader market for ingestible cannabis is only getting more varied and innovative.

A chocolate bar that contains 600 milligrams of THC and a bag of sour belts with 1,000 milligrams of THC are among the edibles sold by a marijuana delivery company in New York City. New York has yet to determine what the limit on THC contents will be for regulated edibles in the legal recreational market it’s creating.

A chocolate bar that contains 600 milligrams of THC and a bag of sour belts with 1,000 milligrams of THC are among the edibles sold by a marijuana delivery company in New York City. New York has yet to determine what the limit on THC contents will be for regulated edibles in the legal recreational market it’s creating.

arrow
A chocolate bar that contains 600 milligrams of THC and a bag of sour belts with 1,000 milligrams of THC are among the edibles sold by a marijuana delivery company in New York City. New York has yet to determine what the limit on THC contents will be for regulated edibles in the legal recreational market it’s creating.
Caroline Lewis

Confectioners in both the regulated and unregulated markets are experimenting with different forms of cannabis, such as THC syrups that can be added to beverages, and introducing products with lower doses — although many underground dealers still focus primarily on more potent products that appeal to users with higher tolerances. Meanwhile, white-market cannabis engineers are delving into nanotechnology and trying to find ways to make edibles with effects that are more controlled and reliable — although creating a consistent edible product still poses a challenge.

The delivery service operator said some of his edibles are procured through wholesalers who might source their products from other states, while others are made by a local “chef” he’s been working with for years.

“In New York, it’s like this,” explained a separate Brooklyn-based edible maker who also asked to remain anonymous because he sells cannabis products without a license. “If you create it in the morning, Chinatown is going to bootleg that shit by the afternoon. There's nothing you can bring into this city that, eventually, we're not going to find a way to make ourselves.”

The world of underground edibles

Humanity has a long history of finding creative ways to eat cannabis, such as the Moroccan hash jam known as mahjoun. But in the United States, the practice was largely associated with the humble pot brownie up until very recently. That’s how the Brooklyn-based cannabis confectioner who spoke to Gothamist got his start a decade ago. The first time he made edibles, he just used store-bought brownie mix and the flower he had on hand.

Today, he said he uses THC extracts that make dosing more precise. Gummies are easy: Just add a couple of drops of an alcohol-based THC tincture to each one and wait for them to dry. But his favorite edibles to make are THC oil-infused potato chips.

You have to toss them, kind of like a salad, to get them coated in an even amount.

Brooklyn-based cannabis confectioner

“You have to toss them, kind of like a salad, to get them coated in an even amount,” he explained, “and then you have to bake them back to their normal consistency of being crunchy.”

The snacks themselves are store-bought and then repackaged once they’re infused. He can purchase the packaging in bulk online. Sometimes he’ll put his own branding on a bag or container, but often he’ll use packaging with ready-made designs and labels that look more professional.

“In New York City, the more designer somebody feels like they're buying something, the more money they're going to spend,” he said. “So, you use the packaging that they want to see their edibles in.”

He doses and parcels out his edibles based on the amount of THC listed on the packaging he buys.

“I can tell you that my potencies are, in general, always on point,” he said. “I know how to do math and milligrams and grams are all in systems, bro. You can do division and multiplication and come up with the right figures. It's not that hard.”

Making the first bite the same as the last

Assuming that the extracts the edible maker uses are properly labeled with regard to THC content, the math seems easy enough. But other factors also dictate whether an edible is accurately dosed.

More often than not, when a product’s potency doesn’t match the label, it is because it has less THC than what’s listed, not more, according to cannabis experts.

“Likely the biggest risk you're going to see is the degradation of your THC into CBN [cannabinol],” said Alicia Caruso-Thomas, the chemistry lab supervisor at Phyto-Farma Labs told Gothamist during a visit to its cannabis testing facility in Warwick, New York.

Cannabinol (CBN) is a chemical that occurs in the cannabis plant but is less psychoactive than THC. According to Caruso-Thomas, THC degrades into CBN naturally over time and heating it — as the Brooklyn edible maker does when he makes his potato chips — can accelerate the process.

Marco Pedone, the cofounder of Phyto-Farma Labs, and Alicia Caruso-Thomas, the chemistry lab supervisor, stand outside the facility, which sits on the grounds of a former prison in Warwick about an hour outside New York City. The lab is scaling up in preparation for the state’s recreational cannabis market to open up, May 3rd, 2022.

Marco Pedone, the cofounder of Phyto-Farma Labs, and Alicia Caruso-Thomas, the chemistry lab supervisor, stand outside the facility, which sits on the grounds of a former prison in Warwick about an hour outside New York City. The lab is scaling up in preparation for the state’s recreational cannabis market to open up.

arrow
Marco Pedone, the cofounder of Phyto-Farma Labs, and Alicia Caruso-Thomas, the chemistry lab supervisor, stand outside the facility, which sits on the grounds of a former prison in Warwick about an hour outside New York City. The lab is scaling up in preparation for the state’s recreational cannabis market to open up.
Scott Heins for Gothamist

“I don't think that's going to necessarily be an unsafe practice, but it sounds like it may not be his intended goal,” Caruso-Thomas said.

Some edibles also lose potency when the THC extract rubs off on the packaging, industry insiders said. Back in 2015, a study looked at edibles purchased by medical cannabis patients at dispensaries on the West Coast and found that the majority were mislabeled: 23% contained more THC than was listed on the package, while 60% had less.

The processes for formulating, packaging and testing legal edibles have evolved a lot since then, but reliability issues still persist, according to Jessie Kater, senior vice president for innovation, research and development at Curaleaf. The multistate cannabis company currently has a medical license in New York and is positioned to enter the recreational market after it gets off the ground at the end of 2022.

“There's been a lot of work that's gone into really doing a good job standardizing and making these products so much more consistent,” Kater said. He added that the goal is not just to get the total amount of active THC per package right, but also to ensure that “someone can have the same experience on day one as day 30” and that the “first bite is the same as the last bite.”

One of the cannabis products Phyto-Farma had on hand was an edible containing delta-8 THC, an extract typically made in a lab. This product is not made by one of the state’s regulated medical marijuana companies, but Phyto-Farma said it is open to testing some items that come from outside the regulated framework if regular consumers request it, May 3rd, 2022.

One of the cannabis products Phyto-Farma had on hand was an edible containing delta-8 THC, an extract typically made in a lab. This product is not made by one of the state’s regulated medical marijuana companies, but Phyto-Farma said it is open to testing some items that come from outside the regulated framework if regular consumers request it.

arrow
One of the cannabis products Phyto-Farma had on hand was an edible containing delta-8 THC, an extract typically made in a lab. This product is not made by one of the state’s regulated medical marijuana companies, but Phyto-Farma said it is open to testing some items that come from outside the regulated framework if regular consumers request it.
Scott Heins for Gothamist

As companies have sought to make products more reliable, though, they have also come up against inconsistent regulations between states and different testing practices between individual labs.

Until recently, Kater said, Curaleaf would take the same 5-milligram edible to different labs and “get wildly different results.” He added, “I think that variability has definitely reduced in the last year, but it still exists.”

This pitfall stems, in part, from cannabis not being legalized and regulated at the federal level. But even achieving accurate labeling does not necessarily ensure that consumers experience edibles in a consistent way because much of that depends on how cannabis is processed by a person’s body, Kater said. A high is highly individualized.

Biotech meets cannabis

Part of the uncertainty around edibles comes from the fact that they can sometimes take an hour or more to take effect, leaving consumers unsure of how much more to take. So, cannabis engineers are working on ways to better regulate the edible experience by moving beyond infusing products with oils or tinctures and towards experimenting with nanotechnology.

New York chef Ron Silver, who owns the popular Manhattan brunch spot Bubby’s, founded a company called Azuca that says it has developed a way to encapsulate individual cannabinoid molecules, so they can be absorbed by the body more quickly, rather than slowly being metabolized through the liver. Azuca has partnered with a range of legal cannabis companies to offer them this patent-pending “fast-acting” technology.

The cannabis edible works in a much shorter amount of time, like anywhere from five to 15 minutes.

Ron Silver, chef, owner of Bubby's and founder of Azuca

“The cannabis edible works in a much shorter amount of time, like anywhere from five to 15 minutes,” Silver said of his product. He noted that with fast-acting snacks and beverages, people could consume them in cannabis lounges once those are open and feel the effects right away, rather than having to carve out hours from their schedules.

Looking to the future, Silver said he expects to see infused edibles and beverages that have more nuanced effects and are marketed for different purposes. He noted that a company Azuca partners with called Wana is making a gummy that “allows them to deliver a strain-specific edible, which means that if you have a favorite strain of cannabis, you can have that exact profile in an edible.”

Protecting kids…and adults

While edibles have a lot of potential to continue to change the way people interact with cannabis — and make companies a lot of money in the process — these consumables also pose some safety concerns.

Perhaps the biggest concern about edibles comes from their potential to appeal to kids. In 2020, children under 12 in the United States were exposed to marijuana edibles more than 3,100 times, according to data from the American Association of Poison Control Centers. That’s up from just 187 exposures in 2016.

Some in the legal cannabis industry push back on the idea that they should only be able to sell a very limited scope of edible products, such as what’s currently permitted in New Jersey.

And it’s unclear how far New York’s regulations will go in requiring cannabis companies to avoid making edibles that kids want to eat. But in the meantime, the state is seeking to raise awareness about the importance of storing cannabis products somewhere secure.

An employee at Phyto-Farma Labs pipettes a cannabis sample onto a plate to test for microbes that could be harmful to consumers. The lab also tests for THC and CBD levels to ensure products are accurately labeled, May 3rd, 2022.

An employee at Phyto-Farma Labs pipettes a cannabis sample onto a plate to test for microbes that could be harmful to consumers. The lab also tests for THC and CBD levels to ensure products are accurately labeled.

arrow
An employee at Phyto-Farma Labs pipettes a cannabis sample onto a plate to test for microbes that could be harmful to consumers. The lab also tests for THC and CBD levels to ensure products are accurately labeled.
Scott Heins for Gothamist

“As a parent of a young child I know how important it is to safely store cannabis products and keep it out of their reach,” Chris Alexander, executive director of the New York Office of Cannabis Management, said of an educational campaign the state recently launched.

When it comes to adults, the ostensible risk is for someone to get way too high — an experience that even some seasoned potheads say has made them want to stay away from edibles.

Many working with cannabis say consumers need to be better educated about what an appropriate dose looks like. Sometimes, it could be 5 milligram of THC or less, which could mean eating a fraction of a gummy or candy bar.

“If you accidentally took 100 milligrams one time and had a very bad time with that, you know, I would have a bad time with that, too,” Silver said.

It’s unclear how much of a public health threat unregulated edibles pose beyond potentially containing excessive or inaccurately labeled levels of THC.

In addition to testing for potency, Phyto-Farma Labs conducts a range of tests to ensure that cannabis products, including edibles, don’t contain anything else that could be harmful for consumers. They rarely find anything that’s cause for alarm, although they currently test primarily regulated medical products, according to lab supervisor Caruso-Thomas.

Marco Pedone, the cofounder of Phyto-Farma Labs, said he’s willing to test any product a consumer brings in that they’re unsure about.

“It would be foolish to think that we would withhold that service from the public,” he said.

But he added that doesn’t mean he’ll offer his services to unlicensed edible makers and vendors. He made a distinction between those entities, which are breaking the law under New York’s Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, and consumers who are legally allowed to possess up to 3 ounces of cannabis.

An orbital shaker (left) used to help with extraction and a Bead Ruptor (right) used to pulverize cannabis flower into dust so that it’s more homogenous for testing, May 3rd, 2022.

An orbital shaker (left) used to help with extraction and a Bead Ruptor (right) used to pulverize cannabis flower into dust so that it’s more homogenous for testing.

arrow
An orbital shaker (left) used to help with extraction and a Bead Ruptor (right) used to pulverize cannabis flower into dust so that it’s more homogenous for testing.
Scott Heins for Gothamist

Industry veteran Steve DeAngelo, who co-founded the Arcview Group cannabis research and consulting firm, argued that New York needs to take a completely different approach to testing in order to surface the vast underground industry and give New Yorkers more assurances about the products available to them. Based on what’s happened in other states, he said, it’s unlikely that these unregulated products will disappear as soon as licensed dispensaries open their doors.

“We could have a tested supply of cannabis available to New Yorkers tomorrow just by provisionally licensing the people who built this market in the first place” and systematically testing their goods, DeAngelo suggested. He said it’s an idea he’s been bringing up with New York regulators as a way to promote public safety while the state builds up its legal industry.

Doing so would go against the legalization norms that have been established so far, wherein each state seeks to create a market in which cannabis is carefully tracked and everything is grown, processed and distributed within state lines. It’s a framework designed to avoid violating interstate commerce laws, since marijuana is still federally illegal.

Asked for comment on the potential for New York to open up its framework for testing products to incorporate non-licensed sellers, New York’s Office of Cannabis Management said, “New York State is building a legal, regulated cannabis market that will protect health and safety by ensuring products are tested and safe for consumers…illegal operations undermine our ability to do that.”

Both Deangelo and Pedone argue that more testing — regardless of the source of the product — would be better for public health.