CHICAGO — Chicago has just legalized recreational cannabis use — a highly anticipated development that raises questions about regulating hemp-derived C.B.D. and T.H.C. and the future impact on American industries. C.B.D., or cannabidiol, is the non-intoxicating compound in cannabis that’s now a common food additive, while T.H.C. (tetrahydrocannabinol) is the main psychoactive component that has, until now, predominantly been allocated for medicinal use. As states’ regulations become more inviting, emerging brands eagerly vie for a seat at the table. But the question remains, how can cannabis products successfully enter the market and gain consumers’ trust?
The answers are more likely to be found in food businesses than in pharmacies. With science working to optimize its effects, the public will ultimately be inclined to consume cannabis the way they do most functional goods, by eating and drinking. While cannabis products are not currently classified as food and beverage, the industry will be heavily influenced by food and beverage practices. At the incubation level, food entrepreneurs are already launching or planning to launch a range of cannabis-infused and enhanced products.
“This is the fastest growing industry in the country,” said Jason Erkes, chief communications officer at Cresco, a cannabis and medical marijuana lab and retailer based in Chicago.
The company envisions infused foods and beverages sharing shelf space with regular consumer packaged goods. “Consistently dosed edibles will be a core driver of this industry,” Mr. Erkes said, and manufacturers must nail down their products’ quality, effectiveness and predictability.
Potential roadblocks include state-by-state regulation and cannabis’ status as a Schedule 1 controlled substance. Products containing T.H.C. and C.B.D. are illegal at the federal level, and many regulators and consumers consider cannabis to be a potent medicinal substance. However, as Americans’ perception of cannabis continues to evolve and normalize, so will regulation. As cannabis adoption picks up speed, lessons from the food and beverage space can help find its legal and commercial footing.
Food and beverage standards can inform cannabis entrepreneurs on how to avoid foodborne illnesses and apply best practices in additive use, manufacturing, consumer education and trends. These factors converge on the most influential food trend of all: transparency.
Scott Mandell, president of Cannabistry, an R.&D. firm working to refine T.H.C. and C.B.D. products, understands the importance of transparency. As the founder of Enjoy Life Foods, a leader in gluten-free and allergy-friendly products, he helped create the “free from” food niche that resonates so deeply with consumers.
Now, Mr. Mandell has turned his expertise to cannabis, an industry rife with quality control problems. At the Food and Drug Administration’s 2019 public hearing, consumers researchers at the Clean Label Project found traces of heavy metals and pesticides in many C.B.D. products.
To combat the issue, “free from is terminology we’re going to bring to the cannabis space,” Mr. Mandell said. Clean sourcing, good manufacturing practices (G.M.P.s) and in-house operating procedures are essential to ensuring a rigorous supply chain and creating high-quality products and gaining consumers’ trust.
“All food, whether infused or virgin, should be safe for consumers and manufactured in a controlled environment regardless of existing regulations,” he said.
While getting into a multi-billion-dollar industry with significant room to grow is exciting, “there are no shortcuts,” Mr. Mandell cautioned. For entrepreneurs eager to launch a cannabis product, the main takeaway from industry first movers and the incubator space is: Don’t wait for regulation to do it right. Apply food and beverage industry lessons from source to sale, and aim high.
Natalie Shmulik is the chief executive officer of The Hatchery Chicago, a food and beverage incubator.