Is There a Future for Liquid Cannabis?

Marijuana herbal tea and cannabis leaves
By Richard Dahl on August 14, 2019 3:00 PM

The beverage industry wants us to believe that cannabis-infused drinks are The Next Big Thing.

A variety of companies have begun to market non-alcoholic drinks that contain THC, the principal psychoactive constituent of pot, or CBD, its non-psychoactive cousin. Meanwhile, Big Beer, which has been losing market share to the craft-beer horde for many years, is casting a particularly lustful eye toward liquid marijuana.

Federal law prohibits the blending of alcohol and THC, but the beer companies think there will be a big market for a non-alcoholic drink that is something like beer but provides the effect of smoking pot. Two beer companies — Constellation Brands (which includes Corona and Modelo) and Molson Coors — recently joined ventures with two Canadian pot producers to manufacture nonalcoholic cannabis beverages when that nation legalizes cannabis “edibles” later this year.

Challenges Ahead

Despite the rosy predictions, the future for pot beverages may be hazy.

For starters, as Amanda Chicago Lewis writes in The Verge, “(e)ven if you find one that doesn’t taste like bong water, the absent-minded ease of sipping almost guarantees you’ll have too much, and the delayed intensity that’s left so many people wary of edible weed means that it could hit you all at once two hours later.” This is because cannabis (whether in a liquid or a brownie) is not water soluble, unlike alcohol, and it’s also unlike smoked pot, which sends THC into the bloodstream in minutes.

So the challenge is to find a way to make cannabis water soluble so that the “high” comes faster and can be moderated. Several companies say they have made significant headway in achieving this shift — one, Cannabiniers, claims a drinker will feel the effects in 10 minutes.

A Confusing Legal Landscape

Meanwhile, there’s another major challenge for national brewers seeking a new national market for pot drinks: While marijuana is legal in many states, it is still illegal — or mostly illegal — in the eyes of the federal government.

Dig deeper into the world of pot-related commerce and things become even more confusing.

Take CBD, for instance. Many of the new cannabis products, including beverages, contain CBD (cannabidiol), a chemical compound from the plant. CBD does not produce a high — or at least not much of one — but it is credited with providing a variety of health benefits, including stress reduction and pain relief. However, even though CBD seems to be everywhere, including your local CVS, it’s not actually legal. Because the Food and Drug Administration says so.

A big part of this confusion about CBD stems largely from a provision in the 2018 Farm Bill, which lifted a ban on hemp production. Hemp and marijuana are varieties of the cannabis plant and mostly differ in that marijuana makes you high and hemp doesn’t. While the bill placed restrictions on how hemp may be cultivated, it opened the door to movement of hemp-derived products — such as CBD — across state lines.

FDA Has the Power to Say No

The reaction by the FDA, however, was swift. Although the agency last September removed some CBD from the most restrictive class of controlled substances to allow the sale of the first nonsynthetic cannabis-derived medicine, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb issued a release in December stating that CBD otherwise remains a Schedule 1 Controlled Substance because it comes from cannabis.

As such, it is supposedly prohibited from inclusion in any consumer product. While there has been some scattered enforcement, however, the prohibition is largely ignored. But as University of Missouri School of Law associate professor Erika Lietzan told the Philadelphia Inquirer recently, selling food and beverages containing CBD is risky. “The FDA could decide to make an example out of someone,” she said.

One might question why there have been hemp-related beers crossing state lines onto liquor-store shelves for years, but these are not really cannabis products. These brewers have avoided running afoul of the FDA because the hemp ingredients they use are “derivatives” from hemp seed and hemp oil that merely add flavor.

In the states where pot is legal, brewers have much greater legal latitude in selling wares that are truly liquid cannabis. The first wave of both THC- and CBD-infused beers is now on the shelves, including Two Roots Brewing’s “Cannabiniers” in Nevada and California, High Style Brewing Co.’s Coastal Haze in California, and Ceria Brewing Co.’s Cannabis Beer in Colorado.

Big Beer, meanwhile, is watching and waiting. Anheuser-Busch, the world’s biggest beer company, has announced that it is looking into cannabis drinks.

The big question, however, remains: Will Americans really drink this stuff? Or, as Amanda Chicago Lewis put it: “I mean, does anyone actually want a sparkling water that tastes like beer and gets you high?”

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