Tripp Keber can’t roll a joint. “But I can certainly pour you a glass of an effervescent adult-flavored sparkling pomegranate soda, and we can experience the benefits of cannabis that way,” says the 46-year-old CEO of Dixie Brands, Inc., whose Dixie Elixirs and Edibles brands are among the biggest names in Colorado’s legal pot business.
In Colorado’s first year of legal recreational pot use, oil-infused products — whether edible or drinkable — were the big story. They dominated the recreational market, outpaced expectations, and provided a peek at the future of marijuana. We spoke with Keber, one of MSNBC’s “Pot Barons of Colorado,” and Dixie Elixirs CMO Joe Hodas about innovation with infused products, the future of legalization, and why edibles are so hot right now.
Why are people in Colorado buying so many edibles? Are consumers just more comfortable with eating than smoking?
Keber: Cannabis exists on every single street corner in America, and generally if you walk up to somebody, you can buy some flower. There’s nothing magical or sexy about it. But now, in soon to be 27 states, you can grab a THC-infused luxury consumer packaged good. There’s something very intriguing about that.
Secondly, most people, particularly baby boomers, who are generally health- and lifestyle-oriented, understand that smoking anything, whether tobacco or cannabis, is not a good idea. So if you create the opportunity to ingest it, apply it, or, at worst, vape it, you have a segment of our society that understands that’s better for you.
It’s also kind of ugly to spark up a joint in front of my 14-year-old, but if I can pop a mint in my mouth, that gives me a viable option that’s not sending a message in any way about the acceptability of smoking or drinking.
So much of the edibles market looks alike, with chocolates and baked goods and other sweets. Why is that?
Keber: We're not dummies. We understand what the American public wants. Nobody wants to ingest something that tastes like Brussels sprouts. We want to make sure that the experience of the consumer or the medical marijuana patient is pleasant. I know my 14-year-old daughter would rather ingest cherry-flavored cough syrup than cough syrup that tastes like nothing. We’re just taking what we learned from traditional pharm and applying it to cannabis.
Why aren’t there more savory snacks?
Hodas: On the savory side of things, with crackers or other baked items, the temperature often required can damage the THC content. We’ve looked at things like pretzels, but part of the reason why sweets work a little better is that it helps mask the flavor. I would argue as we get more sophisticated with the flavor profiles, though, we are developing products that complement the earthiness of cannabis.
How important is innovation for you guys — to be the first company to make an edible version of a particular food?
Keber: It’s incredibly important. As the industry has matured and, more importantly, consumers' palates have become more sophisticated, the demand for innovative delivery systems has grown. I’m sheepishly embarrassed to admit we made a THC-infused crispy rice treat, and we made a lot of money doing it. Now, I want to be better as a company.
Hodas: It’s somewhat shaped by the regulations as well. Someone will say, “We have this great salsa idea. Can you make it?” But it’s not that easy.
What kind of regulations are you dealing with?
Hodas: Here in Colorado, no individual serving can have more than 10 mg [of THC] and a package, if it has more, must be easily divisible. So if you have multiple servings, back to the salsa as an example, you’d have to create 10 mg packs. You’d also have to prove homogeneity, which with salsa would be challenging.
What kind of new products is Dixie Elixirs working on?
Keber: The Toasted Rooster. It’s a super-high-end chocolate bar. This is some state-of-the-art packaging that’s never been used in the cannabis space. It’s an 84 mg, 12-piece chocolate bar, each square dosed at 7 mg. I believe this is going to be fundamentally disruptive to the industry. The guy who is making a chocolate bar and wrapping it in foil and slapping a sticker on it is going to look silly on the shelf next to this chocolate bar.
What’s so special about this bar?
Keber: The taste profile, the ingredients, and most importantly the packaging. It looks like a super-high-end Godiva bar. However, it’s in childproof, tamper-resistant, resealable packaging.
How common are edibles going to be in the future? Can you imagine a marijuana foods section in the grocery store?
Keber: Absolutely. The industry is accelerating at a pace that on certain days is almost uncomfortable. No later than 2020, when the federal government capitulates to end prohibition of cannabis, I believe you’ll be able to walk into something similar to a liquor store, and you’ll be able to purchase it just like you would tobacco products. Just like you would alcohol products.
People seem to be more afraid of edibles than flowers, whether it’s because they think kids will mistake them for regular treats or the fear of overdose. How do you get people more comfortable with edibles?
Keber: First and foremost, we make the delivery system incredibly socially acceptable. We manufacture a mint that is of the same quality as any other. And then on the back, we make it very clear that this product contains 5 mg of active THC, which means you should wait 45 minutes between doses. That product is ultimately going to allow for the adult consumer to embrace it. It immediately becomes less scary.
Responsible journalism plays a role, too. Just think about Entrepreneur magazine naming a marijuana company one of the top 100 brilliant companies. That’s sending a very strong message to the soccer mom in Ohio that there are responsible women and responsible men who are manufacturing these products. We do not walk around the facility smoking joints in Bob Marley shirts.
And my 14-year-old daughter. She’s in the public-school system. The next generation of entrepreneurs, both cannabis and otherwise, is going to benefit from the $40 million [in taxes on cannabis] that the state of Colorado is planning to use to build public-education institutions. How exciting is that? You start to layer on all of these things and, God bless, it’s not as scary as it seems.