Getting cannabis to dispensary shelves in New York's new legal market is a lot more complicated than just growing the plant.
Businesses across the state are now busy turning the cannabis plant into a variety of products, including edibles like gummies and chocolates — all of which must be tested to ensure they’re safe for consumers.
“You get to eat something tasty before it makes you feel really good,” said Maddi Burch, national training manager for the brand Smokiez, in explaining the rising popularity of edibles. They appeal to “people that don’t generally smoke, don’t like the cough that comes with it, the burn in your throat.”
What You Need To Know
- Businesses across New York are turning the cannabis plant into a variety of products besides smokable "flower"
- First, extractors separate out the plant's psychoactive substance, THC, producing high-potency concentrates and oil that’s used in edibles, vape pens and more
- Companies like Smokiez are producing cannabis-infused gummies, while Soft Power Sweets in New Paltz makes chocolate-covered cannabis caramels
- Products must also go to a state-licensed laboratory, where samples are measured for potency and tested for contaminants like pesticides and heavy metals
Gummies in particular are in high demand at New York’s dispensaries, and are now in production across the state.
But before the cooks can get to work, the cannabis grown at New York farms must go through an extraction process.
At urbanXtracts, an extraction facility a little over an hour north of Manhattan, plant material is put through a series of industrial machines and filters that separate out the mind-altering component, THC, often using powerful and hazardous solvents like ethanol.
The end products include high-potency concentrates like rosin, which can be smoked, and the distillate that ends up in cannabis edibles, vape cartridges and more — though by that point, it no longer looks or even smells like marijuana.
“All the flavors, all the smells, all of the things that will kind of interact with your flavoring process as you’re going into the edible line, are removed in a distillate process,” said Jonathan DeMart, vice president of operations at urbanXtracks.
That distillate is the magic ingredient in products like the gummies from Smokiez, a national brand that’s partnered with Hepworth, a Hudson Valley farm and processor. At its new kitchen facility, Smokiez produces gummies in flavors like blue raspberry and watermelon.
Before the THC is introduced, more basic ingredients like sugar and pectin are stirred together in large kettles. The concoction is then heated for about half an hour until it’s ready to be dosed with the distillate.
Dosing means the brew has become psychoactive. Flavoring and coloring are also added, and eventually the mixture is ready to be poured into industrial machines that deposit the liquid into molds — 54 per tray.
“The edibles give you a different type of high,” Burch said. “It’s more of a body high than a head high. It lasts a bit longer too.”
Once they cool, the gummies are popped from their molds and coated in sugar — sweet or sour, depending on the batch — through a process called sanding. Then they’re bagged, weighed and fed through a machine that seals each package, assembly-line style. But human hands are doing much more of the work than any machinery.
“The cannabis industry is bringing back artisan candy,” Burch said. “Candy hasn’t been small-batch made by people in a very long time.”
Artisan most definitely describes the small kitchen in New Paltz that was one of the first to introduce cannabis chocolates in New York under the brand name Soft Power Sweets.
The operation is powered almost entirely by three employees, including chocolatier Shana Napoli, and one Italian-made chocolate machine — though it’s not the chocolate, but rather the caramel inside that’s infused with THC.
“We dump it in here,” Napoli said as she added the crystalline distillate to a pot of bubbling hot caramel. “The caramel is so hot, it pretty much melts immediately. So that is how we dose it. So now there’s officially weed in it.”
It’s all whisked together until the hot mixture is ready to be poured into molds that will be left overnight in the freezer.
“THC,” Napoli said, is “here to get you high. It’s here to be fun. So we just kind of focused on making really delicious flavors.”
On this day, Napoli, the company’s founder and director of production, was coating a batch of matcha latte-flavored caramels. After being arranged on a belt, the hardened caramels take two passes through a chocolate stream.
Next comes the garnish. In this case, a mixture of white chocolate and green cocoa butter was drizzled on the candies, the final step before the chocolates are wrapped and packaged, all by hand.
“We just wanted it to be a thing that was super artisanal that you’re eating not only to get high,” she said. “You’re eating because it’s also a treat and it’s amazing and it’s beautiful and it tastes delicious.”
But before they land on dispensary shelves, cannabis products must make a stop at a laboratory like this one — Phyto-Farma Labs, which conducts compliance testing on all variety of cannabis products.
“You have your capsules, your powders, your vape cartridges, even [CBD] doggie treats,” said Marco Pedone, the lab’s co-founder, showing off an array of products that are processed by the lab.
In the case of cannabis flower, samples are placed in a plastic tube along with small steel balls; the tube is then agitated until the balls grind the flower to a fine powder. Solvent is added, and more agitation produces a solution that can be tested for potency.
But THC is only one measurement taken. Samples are run through a series of instruments that check for a variety of contaminants and impurities, from pesticides to heavy metals to E. coli.
The tests are required under state regulations to ensure that cannabis products are not only safe, but that potency levels are as advertised and consumers don’t overdo it.
“I’m sure everybody’s had some sort of edible horror story,” said laboratory director Alicia Caruso-Thomas. “What we’re doing is preventing that from happening. We’re saying that the number on the packaging is the number that you are going to experience as a consumer.”
Only after testing can products ship to dispensaries. It’s a long, winding journey -- but the gummies like those made by Smokiez aren't quite like other candies.
“Food brings you happiness,” Burch said. “And ours just brings you a little extra happiness.”