The alcohol industry has a crush on cannabis, but should they start dating?

Tinley’s cannabis margaritas contain a full 10 mg. dose of THC, but no alcohol.

Tinley’s cannabis margaritas contain a full 10 mg. dose of THC, but no alcohol.

Photo by Ken Magri

We are not at the threshold of cannabis-infused alcohol, yet. But the alcohol industry is wedging its way into the cannabis industry with strategies that are less about market dominance and more about surviving the future.

“An overwhelming share of consumers feel that marijuana is safer than alcohol,” says James Watson, senior beverages analyst at Rabobank. In 2016, analyzed 39 studies on the effectiveness of cannabis as a substitute for alcohol. Sixteen of the studies recommended it. More recent research shows alcohol sales dropping in states where medical cannabis is legal, while 80 percent of Americans think cannabis has at least one benefit.

Watson pointed to research showing that women, seniors and affluent people are moving away from wine and replacing it with cannabis. To keep up, the alcohol industry wants to pivot towards pot.

Southern California’s Rebel Coast Winery makes an alcohol-free sauvignon blanc wine infused with 5 milligrams of cannabis per glass. Heineken-owned Lagunitas Brewing recently jumped into the market with Hi-Fi Hops, an “IPA-inspired” sparkling water infused with cannabis. In a collaboration with Absolute Extracts, Lagunitas created one version with THC, and another combining THC with CBDs.

The Tinley Beverage Company sells nonalcoholic whiskey, rum and amaretto extracts infused with 10 milligrams of cannabis. Their margarita cocktail mimics the look and taste of real bottled margaritas, but with a cannabis edibles high.

Tinley is a Canadian company, and cannabis products cannot be transported across state lines, so they are building a high-capacity bottling facility in Long Beach. At 20,000 square-feet, it will include a testing lab and distribution center for future expansion.

Last week, Constellation Brands, a New York-based alcoholic beverages distributor, increased its ownership of Canada’s top cannabis grower, Canopy Growth, to 38 percent. According to Watson, “distribution logistics possibilities and building relationships with the emerging cannabis industry” were important reasons for Constellation’s $4 billion added investment. It sees similarities in how cannabis and alcohol will someday be transported.

Molson Coors Canada partnered with Canadian grower HEXO Corporation to create a joint partnership that will “explore the possibilities of cannabis-infused drinks.” In a press release, CEO Frederic Landtmeters said, “Molson Coors Canada has a unique opportunity to participate in this exciting and rapidly expanding consumer segment.”

It is already common for people to drink alcohol while smoking cannabis. So, is cannabis-infused alcohol a natural next step? The short answer is no, because the effects on users are so different.

Inhaling pot creates an instant high, so users know when to stop. But ingested THC metabolizes over one or two hours, making it hard to calculate a proper dose. That delay, and the hidden cannabis taste, make it more tempting to have another drink, possibly triggering an overdose.

“The most common reaction is anxiety,” said Dr. Larry Bedard, Medical Advisor to Cannakids, a Marin County medical cannabis manufacturer. Edible overdose victims in several states have all reported to emergency medical responders that they thought they were dying or already dead. “They’re actually having a panic attack,” says Bedard.

We asked a volunteer, a newcomer to edibles, to consume a single Tinley sativa margarita. He described the effect as “strong.” Taking two hours to kick in, he called it a “rush of thoughts and tangents and abstractions,” concluding that it was not relaxing. “For some people it’s fun,” he said. “I wish I was one of them.”

Even at 10 milligrams per bottle, overdoses are feasible enough that Lagunitas and Hi-Fi Hops included an article on its website called, “How to Survive Being Too Stoned.”

“First and foremost, you’re not going to die,” it reads in bold type. “You’ll be pretty uncomfortable for a while, but you will not die.”

Without a close look at the labels, customers could easily confuse the cannabis drink for a real margarita, or an alcohol-free mix, creating unintended consequences. When combined with alcohol, it could send users to an emergency room, or to their bedrooms, to ride out a wild journey until the effects wear off.

Last month, the California Department of Alcohol and Beverage Control, or ABC, issued an emphatic memo reminding liquor license holders that cannabis and alcohol in any conceivable combination is illegal. Threatening to pull liquor licenses, the ABC also warned restaurants and bars not to include alcohol in any 420 events.

“I don’t think cannabis-infused alcohol will be a thing until government regulations get settled,” said Watson. Citing a 2010 example of Four Loko, a caffeine-infused malt liquor that was quickly banned, Watson said regulation would be such a nightmare that he doubts canna-booze combination drinks are even being imagined.