Microdose infused products grow in popularity as manufacturers cater to consumers looking for a smaller hit of THC
By Joseph Peña
Not every marijuana user wants to get stoned.
Cannabis-infused product manufacturers are accustomed to hearing stories of consumers who concoct their own workaround to reduce the amount of THC they ingest from an edible. Typical methods involve cutting cookies in quarters, halving gummies or taking just a bite of a brownie. At the other end of the spectrum, manufacturers are also all-too familiar with the stories of consumers ingesting too much THC – and swearing off infused products for good after finding themselves curled up in a hallucinatory state.
That’s why low-dose, or microdose, infused products in THC serving sizes of 5 milligrams or less are becoming increasingly popular. They deliver far less THC than the typical 10-milligram offerings.
“Low-dose products mitigate the risk of overconsumption, said Michael Mayes, the owner of Quantum 9, a Chicago cannabis consulting firm, as well as Greenwave Provisioning Center, a dispensary in Lansing, Michigan.
Mayes noted that divvying up an edible into smaller pieces carries a higher risk of error than ingesting a single microdose product. The low-dose products also fit consumer behavior.
“Most consumers expect a single serving size to derive the expected benefit,” he said.
Low-dose products offer another advantage: They can introduce newbies to marijuana.
“Microdosing is particularly effective for a new consumer. And, as I’ve learned the last couple of years, it’s the way we should all be consuming – in small, regular doses daily – for a cannabinoid-efficient system,” said Mskindness B. She’s the founder of California’s Elixirs by Kindness, which makes the Cannamizer – a twist and spray atomizer – designed to deliver a 1-milligram dose of THC in each spray.
As with any edible, precise dosing is important.
Distillate is popular with makers of infused products in part because it permits accurate dosing. It is a clear, versatile oil, rich in cannabinoids and terpenes, and it doesn’t retain a strong cannabis smell or taste. The isolation of cannabinoids – and the removal of excess lipids and plant matter – lends itself to the infusion process and is critical to producing low-dose products with a better margin of accuracy.
When researching how to infuse its Chocolate Chip Therapy cookies with 5 milligrams of THC, California-based Dr. Norm’s opted to use distillate-infused, unrefined coconut oil. The unrefined oil is also an excellent fat carrier, with a faster absorption rate than traditional oil or butter, and it retains a mild coconut flavor, said Dr. Norm’s co-founder Jeff Koz.
Another California edibles maker, Kiva Confections, uses distillate for its Petra Mints that deliver 2.5 milligrams of THC. That’s because the company’s preferred method of extraction – a solvent-free, cold-water hash used in Kiva’s chocolate-covered Kiva Terra Bites – led to spotting and discoloration in the mints. The cold-water hash also didn’t flow properly through the equipment used to make the mints, according to Kristi Knoblich Palmer, the company’s co-founder.
For its Mixed Berry Fruit Snacks with 5 milligrams of THC per serving, Colorado’s Sweet Grass Kitchen uses pure-THC distillate, a concentrate that goes through an extraction and refinement process known as short-path distillation.
“Quality is central to our product line,” said Jesse Burns, Sweet Grass’ sales and marketing director. “When we decided to expand and create fruit snacks, we determined that distillate was the best extract we could buy because of its high potency and lack of waste, including plant material or residual solvents.”
But Sweet Grass doesn’t use distillate in every low-dose product.
The company’s favored method of infusion is full-flower cannabutter. Sweet Grass uses the cannabutter in its low-dose line of Buttermelts butter mints, which offer 2.5 milligrams of THC in a single serving.
“We use single-strain full flower to produce the infusion in-house because it allows us to control all steps of the process,” Burns said.
“From initial quality control of the plant material to decarboxylation to the infusion, it’s about the consistency of effect across the product line and gaining the trust of our customers, who count on us to be consistent so they’re comfortable with whatever product they’re consuming.”
Automate with Caution
In manufacturing low-dose products, the allowed margin of error in Colorado for a product with 2.5 milligrams of THC is 0.375 milligrams. That means you can’t cut corners, Burns said.
That’s why the company is careful about how it uses automation. Parts of the production process make sense to automate – when weighing a product, for example. But other steps such as dosing may require a more hands-on approach that relies on testing and crunching the numbers.
“The THC serving size is truly a function of working with a trusted testing lab, fine-tuned process controls and a big mathematical equation,” Burns said.
At Dr. Norm’s, the infusion of distillate into the coconut oil is done by hand to ensure equal distribution of THC in the oil. The potency of distillate changes frequently, so testing and adjusting recipes is critical. For that reason, sibling co-founders Jeff Koz and Roberta Koz Wilson – are always present to oversee the production of the products.
In terms of automation, Dr. Norm’s uses a Formatic machine – made by the British company Deighton Manufacturing – that is calibrated to weigh cookie dough into an exact size. Even then, a trained staff member double-checks to ensure every cookie is the same size and weight, Roberta said.
“The most absolute way to be sure what’s going into the product is to do it manually, so we can eyeball every single thing,” she said.
Marketing Low-Dose Products
Marketing low-dose products can be challenging: Many consumers who use cannabis regularly want the most bang for their buck, meaning products with higher levels of THC.
That’s where branding, direct marketing and consumer education come into play.
Burns said “cultural intuition” informed the marketing of Sweet Grass’ three varieties of low-dose Buttermelts: Mojito Mint, White Russian and Moscow Mule. With 2.5 milligrams of THC in each Buttermelt, a single serving is designed to give people a similar experience to consuming one alcoholic beverage.
“Creating ‘cultural intuition’ is the notion here,” Burns said. “We’ve designed products that leverage things we already know – the feeling from one glass of wine – and we apply that to cannabis so that society in general learns how to best consume cannabis products. We’re teaching – not just telling – through product design how to use the product responsibly and how to enjoy it. You can tell someone [about dosage] and hand them a card. But when you build that education into the product design around the user’s experience, that’s how we’re going to teach people and normalize consumption.”
At Dr. Norm’s, the Koz siblings manage sales of their products by communicating their brand tagline – “Know Your Dose” – directly to Southern California retailers, who have the ability to educate their customers about low-dose products and safe consumption. Budtenders and retailers have been some of Dr. Norm’s best brand ambassadors.
“Once they like the product, they get behind it and they promote it,” Koz said.
Kiva Confections has a similar strategy. It employs brand ambassadors to visit more than 20 dispensaries every week in Northern and Southern California to talk with consumers about the benefits of cannabis and how to enjoy microdose products. Those in-store meet-and-greets have turned consumers into advocates for its low-dose Terra Bites and Petra Mints.
But there are limits to what those in-store visits can offer. Unlike wineries and wine shops – which can offer tastings – California’s new cannabis regulations don’t permit manufacturers to offer product samples during in-store visits. That’s a challenge for businesses like Kiva.
“One of the challenges with cannabis-infused products is that they can be so strong,” Knoblich Palmer said. “People have negative experiences with them all the time. … When you’re in stores talking with people one-on-one, re-educating them and changing how they think about edibles, giving them a taste of a product has been incredibly effective. We’ve had to adapt [to new regulations], but we won’t stop having a presence.”