Legalization has brought boom and bust for local artisan producers of edible marijuana products
BY WALLACE BAINE PHOTOGRAPHY BY REBECCA GOUREVITCH AND JAKE THOMAS
Cannabis cooks: Pete Feurtado Jr. and Sr. of Big Pete’s Treats.
Maybe one day in the near or distant future, when Taylor Swift is running for president and California joins the United Nations, your marijuana dispensary will look a lot like your local Safeway, only with better in-store music.
Maybe then cannabis edibles will finally achieve full market penetration and you’ll be able to buy dosed versions of everything from breakfast cereal to crab dip, or choose between 36 varieties of pot brownies. But that paradise of consumer choice is not here yet. It did not suddenly materialize with the passage of Proposition 64 in 2016— which allowed for the legal use of marijuana for adults in California— nor with its implementation on New Year’s Day 2018.
If future growth in cannabis consumption is in food products— as opposed to smoking or vape products—then today we are witnessing a baby-steps stage in a market that may soon be unrecognizable. “There are edibles available now, but the quality and variety are necessarily limited by the brave new world of legalization. Everyone in the cannabis industry—growers, manufacturers, entrepreneurs, consumers— is learning about the emerging norms and standards where weed meets capitalism.
Today, you can buy, through licensed dispensaries, a number of cannabis-infused foods including chocolates, candies, cookies, gummies, juices and truffles. Many such products have been around for years, serving the medical marijuana market first established by Proposition 215 in 1996. But the new recreational market is much more heavily taxed and regulated than the medical market was. As a practical matter, that means many products available to medical users are no longer on the market. Others are still available, but more expensive.
“There’s not a lot of things available,” says journalist Christopher Carr who has been chronicling the Santa Cruz cannabis industry on his KSCO radio show The Cannabis Connection. “The majority of edible operators are not licensed. Only the most successful and established companies were able to get that paperwork prior to January 1.”
Cannabis cooks: Tabitha Stroup of Toasted Jam and Friend in Cheese Jam Cos.
Photo of Stroup by Jake Thomas; others by Rebecca Gourevitch.
One of those established companies is Santa Cruz-based Big Pete’s Treats, which makes and sells cannabis-infused cookies—chocolate chip, peanut butter, cinnamon sugar and lemon. According to CEO Pete Feurtado Jr. (son of the company’s namesake founder), Big Pete’s cookies are available in close to 200 outlets all over California. Big Pete’s operates from a small industrial kitchen on the east side of Santa Cruz, a stone’s throw away from perpetually clogged Highway 1, with about a dozen employees including bakers, distributors and office personnel. Since January 1, business has been brisk, says Pete Jr. (aka “Little Pete”). “At the first of the year, orders came in so fast, we had to add a second shift.”
The company’s ambition is to become something like the Famous Amos of the cannabis cookie business. Its creation story centers on Pete Feurtado Sr. and his early experiments in baking with weed back in 1979, when legalization was a distant dream. It was a couple of decades later, after the passage of Prop. 215, that Pete Sr. resharpened his baking skills and attended Oaksterdam University, the Oakland-based institution that calls itself “America’s first cannabis college.” Soon, he had perfected a recipe for cannabis-infused butter that is still the special sauce in Big Pete’s cookies.
But the company still had to figure out the dosing issue. Pete Jr. remembers that first attempt at making snickerdoodles with his dad’s infused butter. “at was the strongest batch of cookies we ever made,” he says. “We were watching a football game or something, and we all ate a cookie. Two hours later, we were all napping on the couch. We had no idea what the right dose was.”
The body absorbs cannabis through digestion differently than it does through the lungs and, as a result, the psychoactive properties are also different. Typically, the high is slower to arrive and often lasts longer. In the new world of legal weed, edibles producers and consumers are having to learn about how to eat cannabis.
Big Pete’s Treats soon figured out the optimum dosage and now sells its mini cookies with 10 milligrams of THC per cookie, which Pete Jr. likens to smoking a single joint. (I tried one of Big Pete’s peanut butter cookies—only in the interests of professionalism, mind you— and found it packed a punch. Individuals will have different tolerances; some people won’t feel a blip at 10 mg, but my own constitution has now taught me not to have more than one in a single sitting.)
Thus far, Big Pete’s is a success story in the cannabis edibles market, but many other would-be edibles producers are finding the new regulations, fees and taxes prohibitive. Soquel-based Friend in Cheeses Jam Co. has built a strong national brand in artisanal jams—favorite flavors include Salted Watermelon and Pisco Pear. In 2017, the company sold a cannabis-infused line called Toasted Jam Co. in about 100 dispensaries across the state. But the new taxes and regulations imposed by Prop. 64 have effectively pushed Toasted Jam off the market. To continue in the new recreational market, Friend in Cheeses jam maker Tabitha Stroup says her company would have to pay up to 10 times more in production costs for new security measures, kitchen retrofitting, insurance and certification.
“It closes a lot of doors for small producers like myself,” says Stroup, who added that she is interested in selling the Toasted Jam line to someone willing to commit the necessary capital investment. “But that doesn’t mean it can’t change and get better because I’m pretty sure this is the only instance in my lifetime that we’re witnessing a brand new industry in its infancy.”
“Lots and lots of good people who have done nothing wrong are not going to make it and that sucks,” says Santa Cruz attorney Ben Rice, who has been at the center of the legal thicket in the California cannabis movement. But Rice is optimistic that a wider and more diverse market in edibles will emerge in time. Governments are also learning, he says, about the right level of licensing, taxation and regulation needed to keep the black market at bay and allow entrepreneurs to flourish, while protecting the public. Legal weed is very much an unfinished experiment.
“There will be more options for people as time goes by, and there will be more enthusiasm for those various goods,” says Rice, who sees legal weed’s current status as an uncertain period of experimentation and growing pains. “When people learn to use the appropriate amounts, they’re going to have a lot more fun.”
Wallace Baine was a columnist, critic and arts/culture writer for the Santa Cruz Sentinel for 26 years. He is the author of four books, and the founder and host of the annual Gail Rich Awards for artistic excellence in Santa Cruz County. He is not entirely unfamiliar with cannabis consumption.