Cannabis beverage alcohol could be a long way off, say California Wine Country producers

Cannabis and alcohol in the same drink? Absolutely not, at least according to California and federal regulators.

That doesn't mean cannabis and wine companies aren't looking into the possibility, however.

Even with the federal legalization of hemp at the end of 2018, it's unlikely consumers will be guzzling cannabis and alcohol out of the same can anytime soon.

Last month, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau gave the red light to drinks containing the non-mind-altering compound cannabidiol, or CBD, derived from hemp.

After consulting with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the bureau said it would reject 'any applications for formulas containing 'hemp' ingredients (other than ingredients derived from hemp seeds or hemp seed oil),' despite the plant no longer being listed under the federal Controlled Substances Act.

California law is also clear on the issue, with current statute explicitly prohibiting 'a cannabis licensee from selling, offering, or providing a cannabis product that is an alcoholic beverage, including, but not limited to, an infusion of cannabis or cannabinoids derived from industrial hemp into an alcoholic beverage.'

The same law also prohibits manufacturers from infusing the mind-altering chemical THC found in marijuana into alcoholic drinks.

Some companies have found a workaround.

They sell nonalcoholic cannabis drinks similar to beer and wine and would welcome the chance to jump into the combined alcohol and cannabis industry if the government changes its mind.

'We've already figured out alcohol with THC and CBD,' said Chip Forsythe, CEO of Rebel Coast Winery.

The company currently offers a nonalcoholic cannabis California blanc and is launching a rosé with cannabis and no alcohol, albeit under a different company and created at a separate facility to comply with state cannabis laws.

He said the company did research and development in 2017 on infusing wine with cannabis and hoped to release a CBD version of its nonalcoholic wine soon.

A key barrier to mixing alcohol and cannabis in the same bottle is that some alcohol permits are issued by federal regulators. As long as some cannabis remains illegal at the federal level cannabis companies will be stymied from combing their products with alcohol, raising the prospect that federal movement on the issue could affect California's prohibition.

Legal prohibitions aside, there are also chemical and business considerations when combining cannabis with other commonly ingested chemicals like alcohol and even caffeine.

'On the question of infusing things with hemp-derived CBD I actually find that a really weird thing to do,' said Tiffany Devitt, chief compliance officer at Santa Rosa-based cannabis company CannaCraft. 'We've been doing research on the therapeutic benefits of CBD for years now and right now there's this fad going on and they're sticking CBD in everything whether it's appropriate or not.'

She said she failed to understand why a company would want to combine CBD and alcohol, or CBD and caffeine, noting the chemical counteracts the effects of caffeine and its supposed benefits as a pain reliever and sleep aid would not be amplified by combining it with alcohol.

Asked about possible future marriages of cannabis and other substances, Devitt did note that a California Assembly bill moving through committee states food and beverages would not be illegally 'adulterated' by virtue of containing hemp and its derivatives like CBD.

If passed into law, the bill would contradict recent federal guidance.

Even if that did happen, however, she said Cannacraft would likely stay the course and continue to produce its nonalcoholic HiFi Hops infused with THC in partnership with Petaluma's Lagunitas Brewing Co. Moving into the dealcoholized wine space was not out of the question as well.

'You could imagine given we're located in the wine county that we might do something similar with a wine equivalent,' she said. 'We probably will continue to explore the market space of cannabis based beverages that kind of fill the same need as your typical wine or beer.'

But even toeing the line with California regulators could lead to trouble, according to CannaCraft's CEO Bill Silver. He said during North Bay Business Journal's recent third annual North Coast Cannabis Industry Conference that explicitly stating HiFi Hops is nonalcoholic had led to a sit-down with the California Bureau of Cannabis Control and other regulators.

'The problem with saying 'no alcohol' [on the label] was that we'd used the word 'alcohol,'' Silver said, noting they ultimately agreed to change the label to satisfy regulators without having to go through a costly recall.

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