As more states legalize recreational use of cannabis or marijuana—California being the most recent—questions about its harvesting, processing, and use as a food additive, against the backdrop of a complex legislative environment, come to the fore. In what is projected to be a $10 billion industry in 2018—as a point of comparison, note that ice cream is a $5 billion sector—the growth of cannabis as a food additive should therefore be of considerable interest to food manufacturers and processors.
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As of January 2018, cannabis is legal for recreational use in eight states, in addition to the District of Columbia—Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Colorado, Massachusetts, and Maine. An additional 22 states have approved it for medicinal use, meaning that the majority of the country now has some type of legal access to marijuana. With widespread legitimacy comes the need to plan for scaled production—a new opportunity that holds unique challenges but also great economic promise.
In Canada, where marijuana has been legal for medical use since 2001 and where recreational use as a food additive is expected to pass by 2019, early stage rumblings include an M&A deal between beverage giant Constellation Brands and Canopy Growth Corp., the largest publicly traded cannabis company in the world. Constellation wants to extract liquid from cannabis and put it into beverages, getting in on the ground floor of a new industry of nonalcoholic, marijuana-infused drinks.
From growing and harvesting to processing, packaging, and distribution, as more states legalize cannabis use, the legislative environment will need to keep up with establishing what regulations need to be in place as food verification and worker safety issues emerge.
The Start of the Cycle: Growing and Harvesting
What is known about growing and harvesting cannabis is largely because the experiment in Colorado has lasted as long as it has—more than five years have passed since Colorado Amendment 64 was signed into law, legalizing marijuana for recreational use a year later, in January 2014. Since that time, the industry has found a market for medical as well as entertainment purposes. The main focus right now is to credentialize the production of cannabis as a legitimate business.
Environmentally, cannabis requires a dry climate. Towns that have suffered severe ground water depletion could see a real resurgence, a kind of modern day gold rush. One desert community in California, where there was once a thriving community of floral, spice, and herb farms, has dried up—but now people are moving back to grow cannabis because of its ideal harvesting properties.
When cannabis comes out of the field in a growing operation, it must be tagged and marked, documenting where and when it was grown and processed. In the same vein, there will be a need for its purity to be checked once inside a processing plant, as part of a closely watched quality assurance cycle. When cannabis buds are harvested, they need to be processed in much the same way as small vegetables, though there will be refinements to accommodate the physical properties of the plant. As with specialty nuts, spices, and herbs currently, laws and regulations must be followed before it can reach consumers. Therefore, this ingredient will have to be added to the current guidelines.
Because of the changing regulatory environment, I believe cannabis processing plants will initially be attached to growing areas, rather than shipping the product across state lines. Unlike Florida orange growers shipping their fruit across the country to juice plants, the cannabis processing operation will be located close to the harvesting area. It won’t require a lot of additives, such as water for wash down; from an operating standpoint, it’s a dry harvest situation.
The Plant of the Future: Processing Cannabis
Consumption of marijuana is moving rapidly from simply smoking and inhaling it to polyphasic use as a food additive. Viewed for use in food, cannabis is just another dry, plant-based ingredient that can be added for its effect, much like Asian herbs may be included for their digestive properties. Alternatively, though, cannabis can be extracted, worked, and created in liquid format for its own unique properties.