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Follow-up: What would Alaska's proposed concentrate potency cap mean for dabs, edibles?

  • Author: Scott Woodham
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 10, 2015

A few weeks ago, we considered whether cannabis concentrates would eventually become available to retail consumers in Alaska. But a reader identified some uncharted ground in that conversation. "Lady Marmalade" asks:

In discussing the possible future of concentrates, you didn't discuss the limit of less than 76 percent THC in the proposed regulations. What would that mean for dabs? Don't they use concentrates in making edibles? Does that mean that edibles would be lower quality? What would 76 percent mean to that process?

Proposed regulation 3 AAC 306.545(a), which in addition to making sure manufactured cannabis products and extracted concentrates require board approval, would set a cap on the THC content of concentrates:

3 AAC 306.545. Approval of concentrates and marijuana products. (a) A marijuana product manufacturing facility, including a marijuana extraction manufacturing facility, must obtain the board's approval for each product it manufactures and sells. The board will not approve any marijuana concentrate or product with THC potency equal to or greater than 76 percent.

If that number sounds oddly specific to anyone out there, they're not alone. The number was the subject of three nearly identical requests for clarification to the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board after it released packet No. 3 of proposed marijuana regulations.

Read more Highly Informed: Seeking answers to Alaska's cannabis questions

The board's online Q&A (which everyone who plans to formally comment on cannabis regulation in Alaska should check out before submitting feedback) explains that the cannabis concentrate limit took its cue from current state law (AS 4.16.110) limiting the percentage of alcohol to less than 76 percent by volume: "The determination of the legislature in Title 4 that alcoholic beverages above 76 percent alcohol by volume are too strong to be safely regulated is taken as instructive in the draft regulations."

That "too strong to be safely regulated" part may make some people think drawing a line of equivalence between high-proof alcohol and highly concentrated cannabis could pose a potential conflict with established Alaska case law. Courts have in the past determined that marijuana does not pose enough of a danger to public health for the Legislature to control it in a way that would limit constitutional guarantees of privacy in the home. But it could also be argued that the very pure concentrates available today were not part of those deliberations. That may be a discussion for another day.

Back to the questions at hand. Dabs, a process of smoking or vaporizing cannabis concentrates, generally uses the thicker and more refined forms of cannabis extracts, which end up with consistencies like granulated beeswax, paste, butter, putty and, at the higher end of purity scale, clear, hard products like shatter. They range from 50 percent THC to 90 percent or more in extreme cases.

But when commercial extract producers talk about a product that's, say, 75 percent THC, they're talking about content by weight, not by volume as with alcohol. They're also talking about 25 percent something else. To edibles manufacturers, the percentage is immaterial compared to the actual content of THC or CBD, and what constitutes the remainder.

Depending on the process used and the quality of the plant products being fed into it, that 25 percent in the end product could be made up of other plant products like terpenes, a host of other cannabinols, even chlorophyll, waxes, oils and fats, many of which can degrade the quality of edibles. The percentage of THC extracted can't really be controlled during the extraction process itself, so labs are pretty much left with what they wind up with. And, generally speaking, the better the plant material that's used, the better the final extract.

Because THC content gets the most focus, there isn't as much attention paid to what else a concentrated product could contain. A concentrate could even include something that dilutes it to control the texture or potency, in the case of some oils intended to flow easily in vape pens.

Hypothetically, under the current draft proposal, if an Alaska company intends to manufacture dabbing concentrate, but it winds up at 76 percent or higher, to receive approval, it's plausible that dilution would figure in. Because no business would want to waste an entire run of concentrate just because it's too potent. So, it appears that the cap would take manufacturing the very purest kinds of dabbing concentrates out of play. But the concentrates used in edibles manufacturing are treated differently, and the process would likely see a smaller, although still perceptible, effect.

For people trying to control the number of milligrams of THC in each cookie in a batch of dozens, for example, the percentage strength of a concentrated bulk oil is less important because with edibles, making sure the formulation is consistent is key, and that takes knowing the raw number of milligrams.

"If the oil has other plant matter and other flavor profiles, that can affect the flavor, so really we try to stay between 65-75 percent THC," said Joe Hodas, chief marketing officer of Colorado-based Dixie Brands, which manufactures a range of edible products and licenses its products for manufacture and sale in other states. "From our perspective, a milligram of THC is a milligram no matter what."

Hodas said that his company uses a kind of waste plant matter called trim and a CO2 extraction process to make its oils for infusion into a range of edible products. Edible consumers prefer flavors and textures to be a certain way (e.g.: not a beverage that tastes like a mouthful of grass), and a lower-percentage extract can affect quality. "Sometimes when we have lower quality trim, it's a lot waxier," said Hodas.

Thomas St. Thomas, co-founder of Mad Hatter Coffee and Tea, a maker of infused beverages for medical and recreational use, said that to make his company's products, "We don't buy oil by weight, we buy it by content."

If all they have at hand is 75 percent oil, not the ideal maximum of 100, he said, then they'd have to make that 25 percent up by buying more oil to get the milligrams of THC they need to provide the dosages that consumers and patients need. The lower the quality of oil, the more plants, workforce, extraction processors and so on that it would take to make the same number of measured doses for their products, which creates inefficiency and added cost. Percentage by weight is irrelevant in other words. Weight itself is key.

The formula that concerns edibles manufacturers like St. Thomas is simple, said Dax Colwell: A gram of extract oil tested at 75 percent THC would contain 750 milligrams of THC, or 75 10-milligram doses. From there, a manufacturer can adjust a formulation for edibles to meet regulations and consumer preferences.

Colwell co-owns of New Leaf Enterprises, a Washington state company that grows and extracts THC and CBD oils and other products for wholesale to dispensaries and edibles manufacturers under the label dàmà Cannabis Products. He says that concentrates sold for dabbing generally range between 60 and 80 percent THC by weight, and are usually the result of a hydrocarbon-based process. But his company sells THC by the milligram to its wholesale edible manufacturing customers, not by percentages. Colwell says his products come from an alcohol extraction method, which removes many of the plant extracts that could give unwanted flavors and textures to a final edible product.

The effects of lower THC content oils on industrial processes is a numbers game, and somewhat known because of the experiences of companies in other states, but any unexpected or unintended effects the cap might mean for Alaska's potential market or overall edibles industry is speculation. One guess is a potential effect on wholesale growers, or on vertically integrated businesses that seek to control their products from seed to brownie, so to speak. Since the higher the quality of the starting plant material is, the more efficient an extraction process will be, there may be selective pressure on growers to not produce the highest potency raw material for extraction because it would just result in having to dilute concentrates before seeking approval. Dilution of dabbable concentrates could have a negative effect on consumer perception. And adding to pressure against producing the highest quality plant material might have other effects on the ability of the market to satisfy consumer safety or demand. But who knows, it also may help provide an avenue to dispose of flowers that don't make the cut for consumers, who would still presumably demand quality.

Have a question about marijuana news or culture in Alaska? Send it to cannabis-north@alaskadispatch.com with "Highly Informed" in the subject line.

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