Medical pot: S.F. seeks tighter rules on edibles
March 02, 2012
Kevin Fagan, San Francisco Chronicle
Candy drops distilled from real fruit. Gourmet chocolate bars. Carrot cake that melts in your mouth.
Stop by the average medical marijuana dispensary, and these cannabis-infused, professionally wrapped goodies and many more like them beckon from beneath glass cases. That delights cannabis customers - but it worries local officials who have to oversee the hazy world of medical pot, where the drug is legal under state law but is still federally banned.
Once mainly the province of brownie-making hippies, pot edibles are now turned out by trained chefs whose products are checked by special Bay Area laboratories that assess marijuana quality. There are few state guidelines defining how pot edibles can be made and sold, however, and a flurry of local attempts to do that has done little to change the fact that the edibles industry largely regulates itself.
Now, with federal prosecutors having begun a crackdown on medical marijuana operations, San Francisco is trying to tighten its rules on pot sweets. The city already has the most stringent guidelines in California, requiring that makers become state-certified food handlers and follow sanitation guidelines. But this winter it took a cut at restricting big-volume producers.
The result has been a quiet push-me-pull-you between pot-food makers and health officials that could help determine the future of the edibles industry.
"Patients love having edibles that are dependable and safe, and come from places they know are producing products they can count on - and that's what they're getting right now," said Steph Sherer, director of the national Americans for Safe Access medical cannabis advocacy organization.
S.F. letter on limits
Sherer said she thinks San Francisco should leave edibles production just as it is.
"The city has a system that works and it is absolutely impossible to fully appease the federal government, so why change?" she said. "No other city in California is having this struggle over edibles right now."
In the latest attempt at edibles regulation, all 21 medical marijuana dispensaries in San Francisco received a letter last month from the city Public Health Department ordering them to sell only edibles made from pot grown by their enrolled members. The medical pot industry hit the roof, fearing that noncompliance would mean their department-issued licenses would be revoked.
At least a half-dozen large makers of cannabis edibles have been supplying multiple dispensaries in the Bay Area since around 2010, when the industry suddenly expanded beyond the casual homemade stuff.
Within days of receiving the letter, dispensaries started dropping the big makers. The producers, dispensary owners and clients began complaining to every local official who would listen.
'It was shocking'
"I don't think anybody has a problem with being regulated," said Stephanie Tucker, spokeswoman for the Medical Cannabis Task Force, which advises the Board of Supervisors. "However, under the current climate of a federal crackdown, it was shocking for a letter like this to go out.
"The edible makers that we have had in our dispensaries are going above and beyond to make the best products and become professional," Tucker said. "Nowhere in state law does it say you cannot be a member of more than one dispensary, and that should mean for edible makers as well."
The big advantage of having a single type of edible available at different shops, advocates say, is that clients can count on a standardized product being available no matter where they shop.
"Limiting my choices worries me," said Bruce Buckner, 59, who uses pot edibles for relief from bladder cancer and Crohn's disease and cannot smoke because of emphysema. "It's a very fine line between eating something that works or having it knock you out. You try them, then stick with what works."
Buckner's chemotherapy appointments vary, he said, so he's unable to go to the same dispensary each time he drives to a San Francisco clinic from his Sonoma County home.
"If I can't get the same product no matter where I go, I'll be flying blind," he said.
Rajiv Bhatia, San Francisco director of environmental health, said he and his staff generated the letter to try to protect the burgeoning trade from trouble with the feds.
"What we totally did not anticipate was the proliferation of commercial vendors making a diverse array of cannabis edibles," Bhatia said. "So we have concerns."
He said limiting dispensaries' edibles to those made with members' pot would be more in line with the state law allowing individual collectives to distribute medical marijuana. The backlash to the letter persuaded his department not to make it a requirement, but Bhatia still thinks it's the right thing to do.
"We're trying to steer the dispensaries toward what we believe to be the legally authorized cannabis practices," Bhatia said. "And there are gray areas."
The owner of the Shambhala Healing Center in the Mission District began asking all his edible suppliers this week to use only marijuana from his dispensary for products he stocks.
"I can understand the city's concern over this," said the owner, who asked that his name not be used because of the increased federal scrutiny of marijuana dispensaries. "But if everyone does what I'm suggesting, I think all the officials would love it."
That may not be so easy to pull off, said Jade Miller, a professional caterer who runs one of the bigger manufacturers, Sweet Relief, which makes cannabis-infused fruit drinks and candy.
"People say weed is just weed, but it's not," Miller said as she whipped up a batch of cherry-flavored drinks that sell for $7 a serving. "To do this, you need trusted growers who are very consistent."