As one of the largest producers of marijuana-infused edibles in Colorado, Dr. J’s Hash Infusion makes chocolates, caramels and candies. But many of the company’s products contain only a minute fraction of the THC promised on Dr. J’s labels, according to independent tests organized by The Denver Post.
One Dr. J’s milk chocolate Star Barz labeled for 100 milligrams of THC had 0.37 milligrams of the valued psychoactive component, according to three tests conducted by Steep Hill Halent of Colorado, a state-licensed marijuana testing facility. Another popular Dr. J’s chocolate bar, the 100-milligram Winter Mint flavor, tested similarly in two experiments, showing 0.28 milligrams of THC.
“They need to work on their process,” said Joseph Evans, laboratory director at Steep Hill Halent. “I don’t know that it’s irresponsible, but it’s nonprofessional.”
The evolving marijuana industry is still finding its way in Colorado, and one of the evolving aspects is the testing — or lack thereof — of products. The state’s Marijuana Enforcement Division enacted new regulations last week, and more changes are to come in May, July and October.
But as the marijuana industry looks ahead to the potential of regular, mandatory testing, Dr. J’s problem seems deeper than a bad batch or two. The two bars that both tested for less than a half milligram of THC were purchased two months and 40 miles apart from each other, and they were separated by 282 batches — or roughly 70,000 units.
“I would be in shock (if those tests were accurate),” said Dr. J’s CEO Tom Sterlacci. “We’re one of the top businesses in Colorado. I wouldn’t be in business this long if we weren’t doing things right 99 percent of the time.”
Enter enforcement agency
Hundreds of customers have complained about Dr. J’s products. At least three recreational pot shops dropped the brand entirely; others said they won’t carry them. And the grousing has the attention of the Marijuana Enforcement Division.
An independent Post study of several products showed that THC levels in edibles are never exactly what the package reads. Mile High Candy’s watermelon drops are labeled at 100 milligrams of THC but actually contained 17. Incredibles’ Mile High Mint chocolate bar advertises 100 milligrams of THC but instead included 146. The Growing Kitchen’s chocolate chunk cookie tested at 101 milligrams on a product labeled for 100.
Colorado marijuana industry leader Dixie Elixirs tested at 60 milligrams of THC with its Dixie Rolls in The Post’s study, which are labeled at 100 milligrams.
“While we are disappointed to learn of The Post’s test results, we also know that testing can vary significantly from one lab to the next,” Dixie Elixirs CMO Joe Hodas said. “Regardless, we will continue to focus on our quality control to be sure all of our products, from edibles to tinctures and topicals, reflect the agreed-upon milligrams of THC.”
But of the 10 edibles tested in the exclusive Post report, no edible had the THC-level problems of Dr. J’s, Evans said.
“You’re talking less than a milligram of THC in a product that says 100,” Evans said. “If people have no confidence in this industry, then there could be a sort of backlash against the whole legal marijuana movement.”
How can these numbers be so disparate? While there’s been much discussion over testing guidelines, it’s still a voluntary action for the growers and makers of marijuana-infused products, or MIPs.
“Right now testing the product is permissive,” said Colorado Department of Revenue communications director Daria Serna. “Starting in May 2014, it could become mandatory for MIPs to test every production batch of edibles for potency.
“Potency testing measures the value of THC in a product, and it also determines if the THC is homogenized in the product.”
The MED investigates complaints, but until testing regulations become firmly standardized, a complaint like this would be addressed as “an advertising violation,” said Serna, “because the product packaging would be inaccurate with a label that read it contained 100 milligrams of THC.”
Just how popular are edibles? ArcView Market Research estimates that infused products make up 21 percent of total sales in Colorado, compared with cannabis flower’s 62 percent and concentrates’ 17 percent. But Dixie Elixirs’ Hodas estimates that number has grown since recreational sales opened Jan. 1.
“The number we’ve used is 40 percent of transactions are infused products,” said Hodas, who said his estimation is unscientific and based on anecdotal feedback from dispensary owners and colleagues. “Between December and January, we saw a five-times increase in our sales numbers. So it sounds right to us.”
BotanaCare owner Robin Hackett knew something was off at her Northglenn recreational pot shop when her customers started calling, reaching out on social media and coming into the store with complaints — all about Dr. J’s products, Hackett said. As of last week, Hackett had received nearly 450 individual complaints, she said.
“People kept coming in saying, ‘I ate 100 milligrams … 150 … 200 … 300 … and I didn’t feel anything.’ And you don’t eat 200 milligrams of activated THC and not feel anything,” said Hackett, who has sold 15,000 Dr. J’s edibles since Jan. 1. “Then somebody brought one back unopened, and I had it tested. There was nothing in there. No (THC) at all. The lab confirmed that Dr. J’s is selling chocolate. He duped me and every patient who bought one.”
“I called Dr. J’s and said, ‘You guys are ripping people off,’ ” she said.
Hackett said she spoke with two Dr. J’s reps in the past month — and she reached out to other Colorado pot shops to see if they shared her concerns with the company’s products. Dr. J’s CEO Sterlacci said he’d first heard of Hackett’s bad experience on Thursday when he called her to discuss the matter — after his colleague sent a letter to Hackett threatening legal action.
“If she got a bad batch, she got a bad batch. It happens,” said Sterlacci, who said his batches yield 200-300 units each and that Dr. J’s makes about 30,000-45,000 units per month. “We don’t test every batch, because we’re still doing small enough batches that that would be economically unfeasible at this point. But we test every week or 10 days. We have a commitment to the MED to keep our product at that 100-milligram mark.”
Upon learning about The Post’s study, which showed one Dr. J’s product having less than one-300th the THC it should have had, Sterlacci at first questioned the testing process and Steep Hill Halent, which is one of only three state-licensed marijuana testing labs
“I have literally taken our hash, broken it up into two pieces, given it to different testing labs and they’ve been off by 50 percent,” Sterlacci said. “It comes down to standards. This is a perfect example of the need for the MED to get standard procedures.”
But he later admitted to a problem with Dr. J’s recipe, something his staff discovered a week ago — nearly two months after increasing their batch size by five to 10 times to accommodate the significantly larger recreational market and orders that were 20-30 times their regular size.
“We were making smaller batches prior to recreational, but the demand went so high that we are now making bigger batches,” Sterlacci said. “Because our hash is cold-water extracted, it’s particalized. It’s not an oil like butane or CO2. So if you have the medicine sitting, the particles could fall to the bottom. So somebody could get a high-potency product and somebody could get a low-potency product.
“We changed the recipe in the last week or 10 days. (Hackett) might have gotten it before we realized there was a problem.”
Dr. J’s is now offering refunds on a case-by-case basis to shops if packages are unopened.
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Evans said the quality of marijuana testing in Colorado is significantly better now than it was a year ago. But until testing regulations are more stringent, he recommends consumers not put too much faith on the number on a package.
“A lot of confidence isn’t present on the number printed on the packages,” said Evans, who has been practicing environmental chemistry for 25 years. “This shows the importance of testing. I’m amazed that people are out there consuming these products based on the numbers that are printed on the package. It says it has 200 milligrams, but that number is based on what?”
A medical case study
Forty-five-year-old disabled customer Shaan Allen had never tried edibles before Jan. 1, when he started visiting BotanaCare to see if marijuana could help his restless legs syndrome. After working through 30 to 40 Dr. J’s items — about 95 percent of which didn’t provide the results he expected — he started reconsidering his experiment with pot.
“I just thought, ‘That’s what edibles do to you,'” said Allen, who lives in Arvada. “I went back (to BotanaCare) and they said, ‘No, let’s try something else out.’ I bought one of their new edibles to see how it worked, and I was taking the same amount of milligrams and was like, ‘Whoa, this is what it’s supposed to do?'”
Some in the industry are concerned about customers relying too much on labels when they try different brands of edibles.
It’s certainly important to customers like Allen.
“I feel like I got ripped off,” said Allen, who is currently using edibles made by Edi-Pure, which tested for 45 milligrams of THC on a product labeled for 100 in The Post study. “If you’re selling a Twinkie, make sure it tastes like a Twinkie. If you’re selling pot, make sure it gets you high.”
Some dispensaries had similar experiences to BotanaCare. Mile High Medical Cannabis got about 10 complaints on Dr. J’s edibles, and the shop, situated across Federal Boulevard from Sports Authority Field at Mile High, was selling off its stock of Dr. J’s at a discounted price of $9 last week before pulling them entirely.
“You want to trust the companies you’re dealing with,” said Mile High manager Nichole West.
Serene Wellness owner Dan Volpe stopped carrying Dr. J’s at his Empire dispensary in 2012 after customers complained that “their dosing was less effective than other companies.” But as Volpe began the switch at his U.S. 40 mountain shop from medical to recreational, he considered giving Dr. J’s another try.
“They were one of the first people to get their recreational license, so we didn’t have a ton of choices at that time for vendors,” Volpe said. “They said they’d improved their recipe and had a new sales rep, and I was ready to give them another chance.”
After 20 complaints — “Dr. J’s is the only one I’ve ever gotten a complaint on” — Volpe canceled his next $3,000 order and began working with other edibles companies such as Incredibles, whose 100-milligram Mile High Mint chocolate bar (a direct competitor to Dr. J’s Winter Mint bar) tested for 146 milligrams of THC in The Post’s study.
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Other dispensaries have had no complaints with Dr. J’s.
“There were some little inconsistencies, but that’s with any edible company,” said Alex Arguello, owner of Colorado Wellness on South Broadway, which sells Dr. J’s for $12. “Overall, I think they did a fine job.”
At central Denver’s Herbs 4 You, which made its switch to recreational in late February, Dr. J’s is the only brand of edibles on the counter. The Dr. J’s display is even marked with a “Special!” sign exclaiming their $7 price tag — a competitive price even for a medical edible.
“Dr. J’s has worked great for us,” said Herbs 4 You manager Roman Tsyporyn. “We make money, and people are happy with it.”
In Northglenn, business is booming at BotanaCare. But even with a steady stream of customers, co-owner Hackett is still concerned about her customers’ and her own experiences with Dr. J’s.
“I’m a new business,” she said. “I’m establishing a new clientele. And even though I’ve been medical here for years, I’m now recreational, and I’m trying to develop a new base of customers. And right out of the chute I’m making people unhappy?
“All these people, they spent a lot of money for just chocolate. I don’t blame them for being irate.”