‘Medible’ pot thrives, unregulated

Jonathan Martin / The Seattle Times /

SEATTLE — The kitchen in the weather-beaten beachfront cabin near Olympia, Wash., is cramped and freckled with mysterious brown stains. A shaggy dog named Butter is poking around, and a quarter-sized spider dangles at the window.

It’s not the best situation, Jim Chaney acknowledges, for a home-based business making marijuana-infused products, called “medibles.”

But in Washington’s scantily regulated medical-marijuana industry, no one is checking how such food and drink products are made, or how safe they are.

And there’s a lot to check.

A dizzying array of cannabis-infused products — from taco mix to cotton candy, from pulled pork to carbonated colas — have begun showing up in the past two years on the shelves at storefront marijuana dispensaries.

Medibles are the fastest-growing segment of Washington’s fast-growing medical marijuana industry. Their wares represent perhaps a third of sales at storefront dispensaries.

And business could really take off if voters in November approve Initiative 502. The measure would legalize marijuana sales for recreational use and create state-licensed marijuana stores that presumably would carry a variety of cannabis-infused food and drink. Those products are seen as a tastier, more healthful alternative to smoking, in which dosages of THC can be more exact, and more appealing to older users.

But for now, medibles producers operate even more underground than dispensaries. And even though they make food, no one is inspecting them because state officials defer to the federal ban on marijuana.

That frustrates Chaney. He has bounced among four production sites, most recently losing a commercial kitchen in Seattle when his landlord in August got a cease-and-desist letter from the Drug Enforcement Administration and shut down.

In legal ambiguity, some medibles entrepreneurs try to police themselves, paying for testing at special medical-marijuana labs.

Even with such tests, Chaney and others in the industry are nervous that a patient will get sick, or overdose on a supercharged product coming from a grungy kitchen.

“You have people making products that are not regulated in any way, with no instructions for how to be stored, no expiration date,” said Chaney, 27, who has produced infused chai-flavored drinks and capsules under the name Dream Cream. “The state is just failing to do any kind of quality health inspection.”

Washington in 1998 became one of the first states to legalize medical marijuana, long before the emergence of storefront dispensaries or medibles.

Since they’ve arrived, state law hasn’t kept up. A 2011 bill, passed by the Legislature, would have regulated medibles, including requiring licenses, kitchen inspections and independent quality testing. Gov. Chris Gregoire vetoed most of it, saying inspections opened state employees to federal jeopardy.

Because federal law defines marijuana as a Schedule I drug, with no medical value, cannabis-infused foods are considered “adulterated” — or unsafe — products under federal food safety codes.

Other medical marijuana states, including Colorado and Arizona, essentially ignore federal law and require inspections of medibles producers. But absent a state law here requiring them, the Washington State Department of Agriculture, which oversees wholesale kitchens, follows federal guidelines.

“Food products containing marijuana therefore fall outside WSDA jurisdiction because they aren’t legal commercial products,” said agency spokesman Jason Kelly.

Public Health-Seattle & King County, which inspects retail kitchens, also balks. “Certainly we want to assure the food safety across the county, but the circumstances are a little unclear in this situation,” said spokeswoman Hilary Karasz.

State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, sponsor of the 2011 bill, may try again, depending on the election outcome in November.

“That entrepreneurial spirit won’t go away. There has to be some regulatory standards,” she said.

But it’s not an easy business. Many commercial kitchens won’t rent to medibles. And it remains risky, as evidenced by the recent DEA crackdown.