What would legalized marijuana look like in the Last Frontier? Alaskans are in the midst of the debate surrounding Ballot Measure 2, the initiative seeking to legalize, tax and regulate recreational marijuana. In late September, Alaska Dispatch News headed to Washington state to see how the fledgling industry is taking shape and how legalized marijuana is affecting the state's economic and cultural landscape. Last of four parts.
SEATTLE -- At first glance, DB3 Inc.'s downtown Seattle factory appears like any other. White walls, tile floors. A staging room stacked with plastic-wrapped cardboard boxes. Employees in white lab coats and hair nets buzz around the sterile and spacious factory floor. But what's being produced here is on the cutting edge of a new industry -- one that lies at the heart of Alaska's debate surrounding marijuana legalization.
In a former life, the warehouse was a processing plant for chicken salad. Now, it's mass-producing some of the first recreational marijuana edibles and concentrates in Washington, following the passage of Initiative 502, which legalized recreational marijuana in the state.
"This is a pioneering industry," co-owner Patrick Devlin said. "It's all groundbreaking."
Brothers Patrick, Dan and Michael Devlin are hoping to stake their claim in Washington's "Green Rush" as entrepreneurs scramble to cash in on the newly legalized marijuana market. The company's Zoots product line will be some of the first edibles sold.
Each brother brings a different specialty to the business. Patrick Devlin, 61, comes from a marketing background. Dan, 65, is a business development specialist with an master's degree in business from Harvard. Michael, 53, has worked for more than 30 years in food manufacturing. "We all had to convince our wives" about the venture, Patrick Devlin said with a laugh.
After 16 months of market research, $1.75 million in investment and a mountain of anxieties, the products were nearly ready for rollout in late September.
With its work just starting to come to fruition, the company already has its eyes set on the Last Frontier, where questions about edible marijuana products -- from overdose risk to child safety -- have become a focal point for Alaskans weighing whether to vote to legalize.
"We hope to be in Alaska actually soon, if the residents choose to legalize," Patrick Devlin said. The company would sell its proprietary information to partners up north, he explained. Plans to expand to Colorado are already in the works.
Devlin wants to redefine the stoner image. He imagines consuming the company's edibles while "sitting around having a great conversation with your friends."
"It's a different way to look at it," Devlin said. "They're not medical products, they're intoxicants, and we embrace that."
"Our slogan is: 'Stoned is then, Zoots is now,'" Devlin said.
At the warehouse, in a white, sterile room, a dozen employees were bustling around an assembly line, taking bottles filled with tan-colored liquid from the line and pouring the contents into bowls. Employees were ensuring that each bottle was filled with the exact amount of concentrate, Devlin explained.
"Our whole thing is about precision," Devlin said as he watched the employees. "There will be a hundred milligrams (of THC) in each bottle, and each teaspoon will be 10 milligrams," he said, referring to the psychoactive component of marijuana.
The concentrate will be marketed as ZootDrops, which Devlin said will come in both "energizing and relaxing blends" consumers can drink straight or mix into a beverage.
A second product, ZootBlast, is designed as single-serving shots that resemble energy shots on the market today. But Devlin said the company is most proud of its third product, ZootRocks. The rocks are hard candies in lemongrass and cinnamon chili flavors, each individually infused with 5 milligrams of THC.
Across the room, a pair of blenders were churning the concentrate, homogenizing the product so each teaspoon had the exact same amount of THC, he said.
"That's part of our commitment, from a safety perspective. People will know exactly what they're ingesting," Devlin said. "This is why I'm an advocate, is the product is better in a controlled and taxed environment."
THC is extracted from the cannabis plants using the same process utilized for, say, vanilla extract, Devlin explained. The company is able to extract 98 percent of the THC from the plant, and nearly all of the plant is used, save the thick stalks.
Devlin admits that horticulture is not their strong suit. Compared to Monkey Grass Farms, a large grow operation in the central Washington community of Wenatchee, their grow operation looked sparse, the plants not quite as healthy. Devlin isn't sure what every strain is -- some are from seeds he collected back in the 1970s that they managed to germinate 40 years later.
The company is hiring a gardener in November who will oversee that aspect of operations, Devlin explained. But DB3 has only 5,000 square feet of marijuana canopy and will purchase much of its marijuana -- upwards of 150 pounds by midwinter -- from other growers, he said.
You can go as far as you can
Edible marijuana products have become a point of heated discussion in the debate over whether to legalize marijuana in Alaska. Opposition group "Big Marijuana. Big Mistake. Vote No on 2" has vehemently opposed edibles, saying packaging geared toward youth could entice children to consume the product. Adults may overdose on products that have heavy concentrations of THC, the group says, pointing to two deaths in Colorado possibly linked to edibles consumption.
Now in Washington, all products, packaging and labeling must be approved by the Washington Liquor Control Board. All packaging must be childproof, and products marketed to children are banned. Many foods, including fruit and vegetable juices, vinegars and oils, and dairy products are not allowed to be infused with THC. These regulations put a damper on some producers who had planned to market edibles with now-banned ingredients.
The maximum single serving for an edible is 10 milligrams of THC, liquor control board spokesperson Mikhail Carpenter said. Ten servings are allowed per product. Serving sizes must be clearly labeled. The board has not faced much pushback on the tightened regulations, Carpenter said.
Forty-seven products had been approved in early October. Granola bars, caramel, sodas and pita chips are among the products given the go-ahead by the Washington Liquor Control Board.
Such products worry Washington Poison Control Center clinical managing director Dr. Alexander Garrard. So far this year, the center has received 68 calls of accidental consumption of marijuana products by youth, Garrard said, compared to 65 for all of 2013. Most of that exposure was due to ingestion, he said. About half the cases were children age 12 and under.
"What we suspect is that as the supply increases ... we're going to see that trend increase as well," Garrard said.
Garrard said the responsibility to keep edibles out of the hands of children rests with the parents, yet "unfortunately, oftentimes exposures occur because parents turn their back for five or 10 seconds. That's all it takes."
"Manufacturers also bear the responsibility ... because parents can only do so much," Garrard said.
Devlin said the company is concerned about youth access. "The one thing we all want to do is to keep it out of the hands of children and teenagers," Devlin said. He believes parents must be diligent to keep products away from children.
"Again, we believe that a regulated and taxed environment is the best way to be able to deal with that," Devlin said.
Devlin said DB3's product had always been designed to be low-dose, so consumers have control over the experience. A year ago, "people laughed at the idea of 5 milligram (dosage), and as it's kind of come to bear, that ends up being one of the biggest issues out there, giving people access to the product in a way that doesn't put them on the floor," he said.
For Devlin, 10 milligrams is relaxing -- he compared it to three shots of tequila, but "you don't feel that way," no slurred words, with an elevated feeling, he said. For his wife, 5 milligrams is too much, he said.
Heavy users can take 100 milligrams because their tolerance is just that high. "You don't want to ignore that part of the market," he said.
Devlin anticipates some situations where people consume too much. "Unfortunately when you have a new product that's coming out, and there is an individual responsibility part of it, you can go as far as you can to help people.
"We worry about people who are unfamiliar with the product and them not really doing the research themselves," Devlin said. A person who ate too much would "be very, very uncomfortable through that night, but there appears to be very minor long-term effects," he added.
It's "just like alcohol," Devlin said. "Who's going to drink half a fifth of liquor and not expect to be hugging the porcelain god?"
Consumers will quickly learn how much THC they can tolerate, Devlin said. Or, as the company says, people will learn what their "Zoot level" is.
Their edibles and concentrates were set to hit the market by the end of September, Patrick Devlin says. They have enough packaging ready in the warehouse to sell more than $1 million of product at wholesale price. Devlin said selling it won't take long.
As Alaskans weigh whether to legalize recreational marijuana, the potential of a thriving edibles market is just one of the many issues to consider. A potential new industry brings with it questions of effective regulations, safety and health, and enforcement. Alaskans head to the polls on Nov. 4.