It was during an endless drive home from a camping trip in eastern Washington that entrepreneur Adam Stites came up with his latest product. "What would happen if I infused heavy cream with cannabis, then mixed it with my coffee?" he mused. ("My VW van doesn't go very fast, so I have a lot of time to think," Stites explains.)
He road-tested the idea as soon as he got home. So strong was the first dose, Stites woke up 13 hours after he chugged a single cup. Nonetheless, his professional interest was piqued. Not long after, he set up Mirth Provisions to sell a commercial version of his creation: marijuana-infused cold-brew coffee, dosed up with 20 milligrams of THC per serving. Waggishly named "Legal," it's the ultimate wake and bake.
"Our customers are not looking to get blown out of their mind, just ever so slightly tilt their relativity," Stites says, employing the lyricism of a man who clearly started his day with a cup of Legal. "It's great for a Sunday morning, where I'm at a teahouse reading the newspaper and want to focus and get some work done," he tells us from a conference in Las Vegas.
It required a complex process for Stites to develop his signature product. Binding the weed and beans into a functional joint venture was a major hurdle. Coffee and cannabis molecules separate when brewed because cannabis oil is not water-soluble; much of Mirth Provisions' intellectual property rests in the unique way it uses plant-based emulsifiers to keep the oil evenly suspended in water.
Moreover, Stites had to find the ideal cannabis strain to complement coffee in both flavor and effect. Cannabis contains two crucial components: THC, the psychoactive element most closely associated with feeling high, and CBD, which has no hallucinogenic impact and usually leads to alertness. The two major species of marijuana, sativa and indica, contain varying proportions of THC and CBD. Stites spent months trying to find the ideal ratio of each, testing 50 different strains before narrowing his final choices. Legal's range includes plain coffee, coffee with sugar and milk, and even fruit drinks, each juiced with its own herb recipe.
Weed adds a rich, earthy base to the flavor, he explains, while Legal's mixture of THC and CBD confers a calm sense of focus on caffeine's jittery high. Caffeine is absorbed almost instantly by the body, but it takes from 45 minutes to 90 minutes for the human body to process the weed so it can prolong the caffeine high, Stites says.
The potential profits from a mashup of coffee and caffeine are, well, high. Per IRI data from Bloomberg Intelligence, coffee sales in America totaled $9.4 billion in the 52 weeks ending Nov. 1; it's harder to gauge the size of the pot industry nationwide, but most estimates put it around $3 billion annually. Legal coffee has racked up sales of $439,815 since it launched in September 2014, all but $6,737 of which came in during the current calendar year.
Given these numbers, Stites isn't alone in creating canna-coffee, drinkable riffs on a spliff. Elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest, Vancouver (Wash.)-based Fairwinds Manufacturing produces Catapult, its own Mary Jane joe by applying oil to whole coffee beans before grinding and stabilizing the mixture. Intended as a home-brew alternative, Catapult is handily packaged in pellets that fit any Keurig-like machine. The company sold around 2,000 units last month, and owner James Hull estimates that sales are increasing by 15 percent month-over-month. Both these figures are for a single state (Washington), but it's easy to extrapolate the enormous potential market as the legalization of cannabis spreads. The same issue was debated on Nov. 16 at a public hearing in New Jersey.
In California, where marijuana is legal for medical purposes, Jill Amen's Bay Area-based House of Jane also offers a house-baked coffee. Amen uses special filters in prepackaged sachets that allow the weed molecules to pass freely into the brewed liquid. She also offers various strength levels—up to 200mg in a single serving (plus a creamer containing 20mg per dose, if you dare).
"It blows my mind. I would never have guessed, but there are quite a few patients in a huge amount of pain, or who at least have an extraordinarily high tolerance," she says by phone. (Amen is also in Las Vegas, at one of the weed industry's many new confabs, The Marijuana Business Conference & Expo.) Another California company offers little more than a token toke: LA's Compelling & Rich uses 'herb conditioned' Ethiopian Yirgacheffe beans. Owner and roastmaster Kian Abedini calls his process "hot-boxing the roasting room": Beans are exposed to vaporized marijuana when still green and unroasted. This means that the remaining residue is insufficient for drinkers to get high.
The rush of canna-coffees isn't driven solely by the potential of its dual market, according to Jordan Michelman, co-founder of Sprudge, a Portland-based online coffee magazine. The Washington native suggests cultural factors play a role, too.
"In the Pacific Northwest, there's this slang term for a Northwest Speed Ball, which is a shot of espresso and a puff of marijuana, and people have been doing that for quite some time," he says.
Stateside, as Michelman points out, both café- and counter-cultures emerged simultaneously and in the same place: Beatniks and hippies have been drinking espresso and smoking joints in the Pacific Northwest since the 1960s. Since marijuana was legalized, coffee-roasters have been able to capitalize on that association legally, creating Speed Ball-inspired products such as Legal coffee. (Michelman calls Legal the "best tasting" of all the weed-infused brews he's tried.) It doesn't hurt that canna-coffes are high-margin, novelty gimmicks for dispensaries to use in luring curious newcomers, much as vaporizers probably did when first launched.
All this raises some of the safety questions inspired by vaporizers, especially the issue of gateway products. A study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience by a team from a branch of the National Institutes of Health, explored the impact of a caffeine-like drug on lab monkeys; its findings suggested that doses of such a chemical tended to lead to higher intakes of weed. Combining the two, it seems, could be risky, at least according to Gary Wenk, an Ohio State neuroscience professor and author of Your Brain on Food.
"Coffee enhances marijuana's addictive properties," Wenk explains by e-mail. Since it turbocharges marijuana's euphoria in that way, Wenk continues, coffee spiked with weed could lead to dependence on the latter. "If [drugs] share some molecular mechanisms, their effects might become additive, or even synergistic. That's why it's never a good idea to combine psychoactive drugs. The effects can be hard to predict."
The biggest challenge for this budding industry, though, is that current laws bar consumption on premises, Amsterdam-style, in coffee shops. Legal and its ilk must be brewed—and consumed—at home.
Stites is primed for those rules to change, saying that Legal's emulsification process could be adapted for serving at a conventional café. Weed-infused coffee could easily be made fresh, on-demand, in the same way European-style espresso corretto is charged with a slug of grappa. Just picture a tiny drop of concentrated hash oil on top of that foam. (And amazing latte art, we're sure.) Once that's permitted, Sprudge's Jordan Michelman expects most major Pacific Northwest-based coffee companies to launch their own herb blends.
"You won't just see one brand doing it/ You'll see a rush into that market," says Michelman. Look for the Starbakes signs on Pike Place soon.