The Columbian / Associated Press

Demand grows for new ways to consume marijuana

2014: 1,001

2013: 1,070

2012: 1,305

2011: 1,537

2010: 1,626

2009: 2,216

Source: Washington State Patrol

Smoking is clearly the popular way to consume marijuana, as demonstrated by the thousands of pounds of marijuana flower legally sold each week. A growing number of consumers seek a more discreet and portable experience that companies continue to develop — anything from coffees to breath sprays to candies.

However, when a suspected marijuana-infused product becomes evidence in a crime, there is no valid way for state labs to test it, making it difficult prove that it’s actually marijuana.

When marijuana becomes legal in Oregon, Washington stores may make a big push to sell marijuana-infused products, because they won’t be available right away on the other side of the river.

Adam Stites is the founder of Mirth Provisions, a company he started in Longview that makes three infused tonics available in nearly 100 stores across the state.

“Our product is a niche within a niche,” he said.

Each drinkable tonic has a set amount of THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana. It’s supposed to provide a measured, consistent experience to take the guesswork out of getting high. With smoking, it’s not always the same high, Stites said. A big drag of the wrong strain can lead to a less than favorable experience, but that’s part of the education experience stores aim to provide.

Edibles are a small portion of Washington’s overall revenue — “nowhere near the same volume as flower,” Stites said. Still, there’s growing demand for new ways to consume marijuana. About one-third of the year’s solid edible sales happened in the first half of this month with more than 82,000 units sold, according to the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board.

“We definitely see a huge desire for edibles and concentrates,” said Shon-Lueiss Harris, spokesman for New Vansterdam, a marijuana shop in the Vancouver Heights neighborhood that sells about 300 products, including some infused ones. He says infused products are seen by marijuana customers as more mature — the wine of the marijuana industry.

Everybody metabolizes marijuana differently, making it difficult for new users to predict how certain strains will make them feel, Stites said.

For some, the idea of inhaling any kind of smoke and fussing with a pipe and bowl is not appealing. Casual consumers can simply nosh on an infused edible or blend a tincture — such as Zootdrop, which has 10 milligrams of THC in each teaspoon — into their favorite soda pop. Products are often advertised as alternatives to flower that provide a consistent, controlled experience.

Law enforcement concerns

Discreetness becomes a problem when law enforcement is trying to determine whether a food or beverage involved in a crime contains marijuana.

Take the open container law, which makes it illegal to keep open bottles of alcohol within reach in a vehicle and was updated to include marijuana products. The law goes into effect Sept. 26.

“The language pretty much mirrors the alcohol statute,” said Lt. Robert Sharpe, who heads the Washington State Patrol’s impaired driving division. “The whole idea is to keep people from ingesting it while driving.”

Marijuana must be in its original sealed package or out of reach, perhaps stowed in the trunk, or motorists face a traffic infraction. Buds on the dashboard are relatively easy to see and identify, but what about a cannabis-infused edible that looks like regular food and is out of its container?

“Those are hard to detect. You don’t know what somebody is eating as they drive down the road,” Sharpe said. “You can’t smell or identify, say, an edible product as readily by odor.”

All the products that make marijuana use more discreet, such as oils, edibles and infused beverages, also make it harder for police to determine whether the law’s being broken. People can pour a cocktail into a Nalgene water bottle and call it good, just like they can a cannabis-infused tonic. What’s to discern it from soda, unless police have a reason to pull the vehicle over and take a closer look?

Marijuana in a vape pen would have virtually no odor and couldn’t really be distinguished from tobacco just by looking at it.

“They could put methamphetamine in a vape pen and you wouldn’t know,” Sharpe said.

Of course, once a motorists starts vaping a drug and showing signs of impairment, it becomes another, more serious crime — driving under the influence. So, there’s a difference between having it out and actually becoming intoxicated while driving.

Vaporizers are huge at New Vansterdam, and tourists often ask for JUJU Joints, which are advertised as the “smallest vaporizer on the market,” Harris said. The vaporizer can be thrown away after it’s consumed.

There are far fewer open container violations around the state than DUI arrests. In 2014, there were 1,001 traffic infractions issued for open containers in Washington compared with 25,795 DUI violations. Also, the number of open container violations dropped by more than 50 percent between 2009 and 2014, according to the Washington State Patrol.

Sharpe attributes the decrease to education, enforcement, prosecution and a culture that generally shuns drinking and driving. The State Patrol also has lower staffing levels now than in 2009 and has about 90 trooper vacancies, he said.

Marijuana buds have a distinctive, strong odor. So, in suspected DUI cases involving marijuana, police are often able to use their sense of smell to determine. Without the odor, there’s still a battery of tasks used in a standard field sobriety test.

“If they’re impaired, we look for their inability to perform these divided attention tasks,” Sharpe said.

Police can still use a portable breath test to determine if an impaired driver is under the influence of something other than alcohol — a kind of process of elimination given the tools they have. Or perhaps, the motorist’s blood alcohol concentration is low but the person appears extremely intoxicated, which prompts further investigation.

“Sometimes people take a little bit of alcohol and a little bit of a drug, which has a compounding effect,” Sharpe said.

A police officer trained as a drug recognition expert can do a more in-depth test, considering a suspect’s pulse, pupil size and reaction to light. The ideal scenario is to have the full picture. The trooper sees evidence of impairment while someone’s driving down the road; they smell the drug on the driver; there’s marijuana in the car; the interview with the driver indicates impairment; and the driver fails the field sobriety test. But, without any sort of roadside tool use to determine, for certain, whether someone was driving under the influence of marijuana, police may not always get the full picture.

Is this marijuana?

If somebody is accused of a crime involving manufacturing or distributing any form of marijuana, or having more than the legally prescribed amount, the evidence is tested in a crime lab.

The Washington State Patrol’s testing lab in Vancouver does not have a method for testing the THC concentration of edibles. That is, the amount of the psychoactive component in a marijuana-infused food.

And they may never have such a method.

There would likely need to be multiple methods or even a different method for every product type to satisfy state standards, said Vancouver crime lab manager Ingrid Dearmore.

“As of now we’re where we need to be to satisfy the law,” she said. “We’ll just keep doing what we can do.”

The exception is cases where the defendant is underage, because it’s illegal for minors to possess, manufacture, sell or distribute any form of marijuana. The crime labs only have to prove the presence of THC using a qualitative exam. That’s easy enough to do with the instrumentation they have.

Any marijuana-infused edibles the labs receive for concentration analysis are sent back. Those customers are referred to an outside lab approved by the Liquor and Cannabis Board. With only a dozen such cases in the entire state, the cost of developing testing methods outweighs the benefits, Dearmore said.

There is also no valid method for testing marijuana-infused liquids, such as beverages and breath sprays, which are sent to the Seattle toxicology lab.

Vancouver, however, recently began using a new method of testing marijuana concentrates, highly potent products that contain the resin extracted from the cannabis plant

Developing a method for testing marijuana products begins with a lot of research and experimenting with what works with the lab instruments, Dearmore said. The method has to meet state standards and be accurate and reproducible.

“All that has to be put in writing and reviewed,” Dearmore said.

Scientists then have to be trained and approved in the method, which may not be used often. Flower is still the most common way to use marijuana, and it’s the product testing labs receive the most.

A lot of the problem with pinning down crimes that involve marijuana has been comparing marijuana with alcohol. Crime labs and police are stepping deeper into a relatively unknown substance.

“We know a lot about alcohol, but we don’t know as much about THC,” Sharpe said.

As more and more research is done to determine what marijuana is and how it impacts people, over the next five years Stites imagines a lot of money and effort will be pumped into the industry, resulting in products that are “going to blow everyone away.” Industry leaders have creativity and an open playing field to put forth just about anything they put their minds to.

Last month, the Liquor and Cannabis Control Board approved his new product, a breath spray that delivers 1.5 milligrams of THC with each squirt. It takes five to 10 minutes for the consumer to feel the effects.