Pot Shots: Cannabis drinks haven’t reached the sipping point in B.C. yet

The beverages offer a fast-acting alternative to edibles.

Credit: Suharu Ogawa

The beverages offer a fast-acting alternative to edibles

This article was originally published in our April issue, and was written before the COVID-19 pandemic came to Canada. 

Happy with your chocolate CBD bar? Blissed out by your banana sundae with THC sauce? Well, that’s good news! Seriously, I mean it. Ingesting cannabis, while not without potential problems, does avoid the whole smoking and vaping conundrum. For valid reasons, the act of inhaling anything understandably gives many pause. And with recent reports linking vaping of THC products to “popcorn lung,” the health risks of smoking weed, once largely dismissed as the overreaction of hysterics and ideologues, are being considered in a new, less flattering light.

For those who are concerned about smoking, ingesting cannabis is a viable alternative. But the recently approved cannabis edibles products are freighted with their own limitations. Namely, the inevitable—and, for some, untenable—wait after chewing a THC-laced gummy for that psychoactive (or therapeutic) goodness to kick in. A lot of consumers (especially those who use medical marijuana to manage pain) consider this a non-starter. However, there is one cannabis delivery system that may strike the perfect compromise: beverages.

Faster acting than edibles, yet posing none of the risks associated with smoking flower, cannabis drinks are poised to make a splash. A 2019 survey of 2,000 Canadian adults by accounting firm Deloitte identified a niche market estimated at $529 million—not massive, but significant. And there is, it seems, a thirst for cannabis-infused beverages: in the same study, 37 percent of respondents who identified as “likely users” expressed an interest in trying them.

A lot of companies are banking on this, and some have serious experience in the legacy beverage (read: booze) industry. U.S. titan Constellation Brands, whose holdings include everything from Corona and Modelo beers to Robert Mondavi wines, owns a serious chunk of Ontario-based Canopy Growth Corp., whose upcoming lineup of cannabis drinks include the Houseplant brand, co-founded by Vancouver actor and director Seth Rogen. Quebec’s Hexo, in partnership with Molson Coors, is developing the Truss line of drinks, while B.C. companies like Tantalus Labs, Tilray and BevCanna Enterprises are getting in on the action by teaming up with existing adult beverage producers or, in the case of the latter, making their own.

But, you ask, where can I buy these wondrous new elixirs? As of this writing, you couldn’t. (Aside from a few teas, none were yet available in BC Cannabis Stores.) While edibles have been around since December, beverages are nowhere to be seen. “It’s a new beast, so regulators are being extra cautious,” says Samantha Stanway, brand manager for BevCanna, whose Grüv iced teas and Anarchist Mountain sparkling water lines will launch in the third quarter of 2020. “As the saying goes, there are two ways to do things: do them right, or do them twice.”

There are challenges ahead. Unlike edibles, which had a long-standing grey market history—and therefore an existing consumer base—cannabis drinks are mostly a new thing. The trick is to create a market where none existed. Packaging regulations, one assumes, could make this even more difficult. Stanway disagrees. “I don’t think so, because everybody’s in the same boat,” she says. “Some of the most restrictive environments offer the greatest opportunities to be creative. So we’ve just been treating it like an exciting challenge.”

Other landmines? For the foreseeable future, you won’t be able to order a cannabis drink at a restaurant or bar, a regulatory hurdle that will impede market growth. Another problem is living up to inflated investor expectations—something not unheard of when it comes to the cannabis sector. In the U.S. states that have already legalized cannabis infused drinks, sales account for just 1 percent of the overall market. Granted, this is a very new product. Still.

With cannabis drinks, from a health perspective alone it looks like there’s much to recommend. At this point, though, we’re in wait-and-see mode. Watch for the products to start appearing in the next few months. They’ll be here eventually, come hell…or high water.