THC is popping up in snacks from olive oil to shrimp chips

Felicity Chen knew she was not going to be able to get her mom to smoke weed with her. It wasn’t for lack of trying — in the past, Chen had been open about her cannabis use with her mother, Huang, a 64-year-old Taiwanese immigrant. But smoking was an especially daunting idea for her mother, who struggles with asthma. To help combat the ailment, Chen’s father had gotten into backyard beekeeping, and harvested honey to soothe Huang when her symptoms got particularly bad.

It was 2017, and recreational cannabis had recently been legalized in her home state of California in November 2016. Chen realized she could infuse her dad’s honey with cannabis, and after some experimentation, her brand, Potli, was born. Now, Chen has built a CBD product line and THC product line that intends to meet consumers where they are — think flavor enhancers like infused sriracha and olive oil, or Asian snack staples like shrimp chips, ginger chews, and even fortune cookies. The company has made over $1 million in revenue since its inception, according to Chen.

“Not that I don’t want to indulge in a brownie, but it’s not something I’m reaching for every single day,” Chen told me in an interview. “Our products are something you can build a ritual around.” Adding honey to tea is something that even the most risk-averse consumers could see themselves doing. Drizzling some olive oil on a pasta dish feels relatively harmless, even fancy. “We wanted to do it in a way that does not change people’s behavior, but enhances and elevates the behaviors they already do,” Chen said.

Traditionally, “edibles” are often associated with baked goods like homemade pot brownies, which can be somewhat unpredictable in terms of dosing and quality. You might’ve encountered some variety of gummy candy in recent years, wrapped in aggressively colorful packaging that promises to bring the consumer of its contents to another planet. These days, though, the THC snack marketplace looks very different — chips and candies and chocolates and cocktail kits and other products that are meant to get consumers high without smoking a puff — and it is blossoming into a cornerstone of American relaxation and consumption culture.

Potli’s infused shrimp chips are a take on a classic Asian snack.
Potli

The methods by which consumers can choose to experience cannabis have grown more creative and more similar to the marketplace that already exists for our other vices (like caffeine and alcohol). There’s Rose Delights, which makes cannabis-concentrate edibles from fine ingredients, like d’Anjou pears and ume plum syrup. There are torta capreses and torta biancas, branded around images of southern Italy. You can buy rosemary sea salt crackers to liven up a charcuterie board, or tortilla chips to go with your salsa, and cookies and popcorn and gummy candy in every flavor combination imaginable.

Beverages are an especially fast-growing category. Take Levia, for example, an infused sparkling water brand with corny flavor names like “Achieve” and “Dream.” There’s Vibations, an energy drink mix powder branded toward athletes and the health-conscious. An infused lemonade brand, simply named Good Stuff, adorns its bottles with whimsical animals playing jazz instruments, and for those who drink one of the billions of cups of coffee Americans consume every year, there’s even cold brew out there. And there’s no shortage of liquors and alcoholic spirit replacements — think craft cannabis cider; a cocktail mixer called Mxxn, pronounced “moon”; and of course there’s Cann, a leading THC drink that leans into the wellness vibes that people are reaching for across all Big Beverage categories.

Cannabis curiosity in the United States is growing. Forty-nine percent of Americans say they’ve tried cannabis, while the number was just 30 percent in 1985. As Luke Winkie reported for The Highlight, Americans overwhelmingly agree that cannabis should be legalized for recreational and medical use. During the pandemic, weed sales increased significantly in several states as people were stuck at home, and sales are expected to reach $45.9 billion by 2025.

Regardless of the fact that recreational weed is legal in 18 states and Washington, DC, more people are arrested over marijuana possession than any other drug, according to a report from the ACLU. There is inherent racism when it comes to marijuana in the US — Black people are more likely to be arrested and convicted for possession of cannabis, and Black and brown people have more trouble obtaining provisional sales licenses.

Pro-cannabis legislation, too, has been often delayed. In March, industry writer Mary Jane Gibson reported for Vox that the road to legalization and decriminalization in America has remained shaky. Despite the fast growth of the industry — there are about 430,000 jobs and counting in cannabis, and one in three Americans has lived in a state with legal access to weed — it is unclear when marijuana will no longer be classified as a Schedule 1 illegal drug or what future policies will look like. Many regulations operate state by state, and, despite past promises, the Biden administration doesn’t seem too pressed about changing things.

All of this has created an element of confusion as the THC product market continues to boom in some areas. While CBD is the cannabinoid that has run through the health and wellness world, THC is its edgier cousin, and many are wary of its growing presence. Andrea Hernández, a food and beverage trend analyst and writer of the industry newsletter Snaxshot, says this shift was inevitable.

“This is similar to what happened with tequila and mezcal, where once one hits the mainstream, then the other has sort of a meteoric rise,” she told me. “But there’s still that gap in education where not everybody is familiar with what a specific dosage of THC or CBD even does.”

Many consumers don’t know what to expect from these products because they are so new. The decline of public interest in CBD likely at least partially stems from this burnout; CBD was everywhere, but without real regulation or education, consumers are beginning to shy away from it. THC brands are also limited geographically and growth-wise — the current regulations confine companies to finding consumers exclusively in states like California or Massachusetts, and force them to wait to expand across the country. It creates disjointed information from state to state and consumer to consumer, who may not be receiving clear messaging on THC use at all.

“There’s been that surge in interest, but I still think that there’s a lot of limitation in terms of who’s bridging that education gap and setting expectations correctly for the mainstream consumer who’s not really an industry expert,” Hernández said. In markets outside the US, she doesn’t see this issue arise with as much frequency. “It’s mind-blowing just how normalized and just how embedded cannabis is in social outings abroad,” she said. “I’m not sure how much this can scale in the United States if restrictions aren’t relaxed at the same pace that THC demand is booming.”

Hernández says that while legislation tries to catch up with the market, consumers have a personal responsibility to do their research before indulging in THC snacks. Inexperienced users should educate themselves about cannabinoids, dosing, and the effects of different consumption methods instead of blindly experimenting with THC and hoping for the best.

“This stuff isn’t something that’s for transcending into another plane. It’s just a way to unwind without alcohol or something else,” she said. “Because, to be honest, it’s so funny how we normalize drinking alcohol, and we turn it into happy hour, but we’re ingesting a little depressant.”

Artet is one beverage brand that hopes to expand through the United States as restrictions ease up. Founded by cousins Xander Shepherd, Zach Spohler, and Max Spohler, the company was born out of their desire to seamlessly fit cannabis into typical, everyday social moments, which largely tend to revolve around alcohol. A joint might scare some people off in an adult setting, their thinking went, but a cannabis beverage can potentially have an elegant feel.

Artet, which is “tetra” backward, as in tetrahydrocannabinol, has a fancy ring to it, and is inspired by Italian aperitivo culture.

“The flavor profile is a little bit sophisticated, but it draws inspiration from the history of these spirits where it doesn’t have to be for everyone, but the people who love it really love it,” Zach Spohler told me. “To an extent, cannabis is the perfect aperitif. It can open your mind, your mood, your palate. The social aspect of cannabis felt like a tight narrative to link a drinking experience to, while normalizing cannabis as a legitimate ingredient in mixology,” he said.

It’s likely a lucrative venture — the global cannabis beverage market alone is projected to be worth $2.8 billion by 2025. A vision of happy hours fueled by cannabis could be possible in America one day, or wellness juice boutiques where you can add THC to your smoothie. Liquors like Artet make this future a likelier one, especially with Instagram-ready artsy designs that can stand front and center on a bar cart. These weed beverages can make their beholders seem forward-thinking and modern — another chic status signaler in a beautiful bottle.

A bottle of Artist and a hand holding a glass with a drink in it.

Artet uses a traditional-looking liquor bottle for their cannabis aperitif.
Artet

“Beverages are the most universal socializer that exists — ‘Let’s grab coffee in the morning together, get beers after work, let’s get a juice after we work out.’ Our belief was always that cannabis would have a rightful place in that kind of societal behavior,” Shepherd said. “We have a long way to go before we have mass cultural adoption, but in places like California, we’ve gotten a lot of people understanding the benefits of using cannabis in cocktail moments.”

Cannabis edibles have occasionally gotten a bad rap, due to the sometimes unpredictable nature of their onset and effects. They can take up to a full hour to kick in, and the effects can be very different depending on dosage amount and the user’s own tolerance and metabolism. When it comes to users under the age of 18, studies show they can experience adverse symptoms such as lethargy and confusion, and at worst vomiting, chest pain, respiratory difficulty, and seizures when exposed to high THC dosages.

Artet appears like a natural addition to a bar cart, which maybe makes it a little more clear that it is not intended for children. However, with other THC snacks, some people worry about the possibility of products being accidentally consumed by kids. It’s a longstanding public health fear, and the lack of consumer education and continued restrictions do not help the situation. Big candy brands have even sued over lookalikes before. However, widespread claims that weed candy is intentionally passed out on Halloween to poison children have remained baseless for years.

“People have had children and alcohol in their homes for a very long time and have been able to create guardrails to prevent kids from trying things that are off limits. I think that’s a parental choice that parents can make in terms of how they create those delineations,” Shepherd said.

In terms of safety, Hernández, the food trend analyst, notes that some of these brands have child-proof packaging that aims to prevent kids from eating THC products. It’s more reasonable, then, to have consumption concerns about adults. “When people say they’re just going to have a quick snack, sometimes you’re mindlessly eating and you’re like, fuck, I just ate half a bag of chips, right? How do you teach correct dosage when something has that feeling of a snack?”

Experts say that like any drug or recreational activity, safety in this new frontier is dependent on consumer education and responsibility. “Who wants to be Everclear? No one,” Chen said. “There are beers of cannabis, and whiskeys of cannabis, and then there’s the Everclears. At the end of the day, that’s not what every consumer needs.”

She would know: Chen’s mother, Huang, has come around on THC. Now, during allergy season, she likes to mix a dose of Potli honey in with a cup of tea.

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