From Blunts to Bottles, How Do You Solve a Problem Like Marijuana Drinks?
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Drinking isn’t the natural instinct of cannabis consumers. Just as one wouldn’t consider smoking something to get drunk, why gulp down to get high? But in a legal market now brimming with balms, gummies, and oils, a cannabis beverage doesn’t seem so out of place.
But while beverage businesses try to market marijuana as the new New Coke, there’s still one problem left to address: that cannabis drink might have lost its cannabinoid kick.
Liquid marijuana drinks – how to save a shelf life
“We think it's important to understand how stable these emulsions are on the shelf,” says Dr Kristofer Marsh. “If you put them in a dispensary, a year from now, will everything have settled out? Or are they still going to be suspended throughout the entire beverage?”
Marsh is talking about nano-emulsions, the tiny chemical vessels that bond with cannabinoids in cannabis drinks. Because THC, CBD, and other cannabis chemicals aren’t soluble in water, every marijuana-infused liquid is dependent on these emulsions to keep the drink active.
“You can think of cannabinoids and water like Italian dressing,” he says, “they just separate immediately.”
“So one way that people get these cannabinoids into aqueous beverages is by encapsulating them with some kind of emulsification agent… which is a molecule that has both hydrophilic and hydrophobic pieces,” he explains. “That hydrophobic part of the surfactant will basically connect to the cannabinoid, and the hydrophilic part will be facing out toward the aqueous beverage solution. In that way, you create these nano-emulsions, [which] are more or less a soap.”
But while running an experiment at the Niva Labs, a cannabis testing facility in Los Angeles where Marsh serves as the lab director, he realized that some nano-emulsions might not be lasting as long as the shelf lives promised.
“The way we test these things for stability, typically you do an accelerated temperature study,” he explains. “Obviously, you don't want to take 15 real months to see whether or not your beverage is stable. So we’ll accelerate that testing by putting them in a 55 degrees Celsius oven for six weeks, and that will simulate 18 months for the beverage sitting on a shelf.”
The technique is standard practice for testing drinks in the alcohol sector. But, when used on cannabis beverages, Marsh discovered that it could be artificially altering the drinks’ potencies.
“For cannabinoids, degradation at elevated temperatures was much faster than if you were just to have them sit out on the shelf,” he says.
The discovery could have wide implications for the cannabis drink market. Are thousands of drinks incorrectly labelled? Are they not as potent as they claim to be? It’s difficult to be sure, says Marsh, but the experiment at least highlights how much scientific attention the cannabinoid beverage field desperately needs.
“We think that we might artificially be degrading these compounds, which is likely not representative of what we actually see on the shelf in the real world,” he tells Analytical Cannabis.
Cannabis beer – it’s in the can
And it’s not just testing equipment that’s turning cannabis drinks flat; it’s the cans, too. While they may be more aesthetically attractive to a consumer than a glass or plastic bottle, aluminum cans aren’t exactly fit for maintaining nano-emulsions. Although, the aluminum element itself isn’t to blame.
“It's not the aluminum that's the problem,” Marsh clarifies. “People probably think [an aluminum can] is just a piece of aluminum, but it's a highly complex, layered system of aluminum and plastic to make sure that the permeability of the gas coming out of the can is very low [and] to make sure that it preserves the taste and the fizziness.”
And it’s this layered, processed mesh of material that can kill a cannabinoid buzz.
“[The can lining] typically has a hydrophobic coating,” says Marsh. “And cannabinoids are themselves hydrophobic. So, when you put cannabinoids into a can, over time, eventually they stick to the sides of the walls.”
Being hydrophobic, the cannabinoids are naturally inclined to retreat from the liquid. If encased in glass or plastic, which are both hydrophilic, there’d be nowhere left to turn. But in a hydrophobic can, any THC or CBD molecule will withdraw into the can lining like a party reveller retreating to the kitchen.
It’s another big problem for the cannabis drinks industry, and one that will require tons of investment and chemical processing experience to solve. All of which raises the inevitable question: is it really worth it? When cannabis drinks companies are still struggling to make a profit, couldn’t processors be investing their energy into other cannabis products? Ultimately, are enough people thirsty for cannabis cans?
“I think right now it's been more of a shock factor,” says Marsh. “But I think there is certainly a market for it. I don't think it will be the leading market. Things like kombucha and other sorts of wellness cocktails that aren't alcohol based… they are popular. And I think that cannabis fits well into that market segment.”
Indeed, several market reports have estimated that the ‘millennial-wellness’ factor will help push cannabis drinks to the fore of the market. It’s partly why so many businesses have been banking hard on North America’s THC thirst. Since 2017, Constellation Brands, an alcohol company that includes the Corona and Modelo brands, has poured over $4 billion into the largest Canadian marijuana producer, Canopy Growth.
“Right now, the industry is kind of buckling, at least in the States,” Marsh adds. “It seems like those sort of boutique products are probably not everyone's top priority right now. And Canopy Growth has slowed down. It's hard to say exactly why, other than that they’re probably worried about keeping their business afloat at this moment.”
Yet, by downsizing their spending and expectations, there’s hope that a stable cannabis drinks sector can float – the global market is still expected to reach USD $2.8 billion by 2025.
“I think in the long run, we'll see cannabis beverages,” says Marsh. “Cans are not going to go away. Our job is just to figure out how to get the beverages to work with that can technology.”
Through this work, Marsh and his colleagues are not only fortifying the future of the cannabis drinks market, but, ahead of regulatory oversight, readying the field for accountability, too.
“Stability is a huge topic right now that isn't really being covered by any regulatory bodies,” he tells Analytical Cannabis. “[Our] findings will hopefully help guide regulators’ decisions on how they decide to implement these stability requirements. [And] I'm sure when the FDA steps in we'll see some of that happening. But right now, it's really up to the labs to do that. And we didn't see anybody doing that with the beverage space, so that's what brought us to it.”
This article originally appeared in Analytical Cannabis' Advances in Cannabis Extraction and Processing ebook in March 2020.