Read more coverage of North Coast cannabis commerce: nbbj.news/cannabis

Cannabis as a product has transmogrified from its druggy history a couple of decades ago, when consumers inhaled black-market weed from finger-staining joints or amber-drenched bongs, and gobbled crunchy brownies laced with Mary Jane. The illicit market exuded a seedy, unsavory haze. Police, seeking to enforce cannabis-banning laws, threatened to arrest and jail anyone involved in the business of pot.

Contrast those products with cannabis of today, such as edible morsels made by Santa Rosa startup Garden Society, which creates cannabinoid-graced milk chocolate squares that resemble boxed candies, and gelée cubes infused with strawberry, basil, passion fruit — and 5 milligrams of THC from sativa. The company launched operations in January, a couple of months after voters approved legalization of pot in California for adult use.

Two women at the heart of the enterprise, founder Erin Gore and marketing luminary Karli Warner, are hip, bright and savvy to a fast-shifting cannabis marketplace. They plan to sell cannabis edibles directly to women at social gatherings in customers’ homes, a marketing approach associated with high-end Scandinavian beauty lotions and similar products. Garden Society’s business branding is clean and fresh.

“We are working with women in their homes,” Gore said, “doing education-focused parties” managed by a brand ambassador. “Women love a sense of community. They’re curious. They want to learn and talk about it. We are creating an avenue for them to get educated, feel comfortable then start to buy product directly from us.”

She researched sale of other products to women through similar channels. “Women worry about the stigma — if someone sees them walk into a dispensary,” Gore said. They might be concerned how cannabis will react with other medications, or “what happens with children — if they find it. They have private questions. This provides a forum for them to feel confidential and safe. They also have fun together with girlfriends. It takes that fear away. Once they are comfortable with cannabis, they are going to explore” dispensaries.

“That’s the best way to reach women,” Warner said of private parties. She worked five years in marketing for Constellation Brands, a publicly traded wine company based in New York with revenue near $6 billion. Gore’s husband runs Tom Gore Vineyards that produces nearly 150,000 cases for Constellation.

Gore’s business model has three channels: wholesale through distributors; direct to dispensaries and delivery services; and sales with private parties in homes.

California voters passed Prop. 64 in November, making it legal to possess, smoke, eat and grow cannabis for folks over 21 — for medicinal or recreational use. In January 2018, adult-use cannabis can be legally sold in California, opening a vast new market that in a few years could rival the wine industry. Last year, California wineries pumped 238 million cases worth an estimated $34 billion into the U.S. market. As the adult-use cannabis blooms, stigma surrounding pot will dissipate.

Healdsburg, where Gore and Warner live, allows no cannabis enterprise. The entrepreneurs situated Garden Society in Santa Rosa, where more than two dozen cannabis-commerce companies applied for permits — a fast-emerging CannaCom Valley that will command huge revenue.

The timing of Garden Society’s January 2017 launch with medical-cannabis sales sets up the company to push into the adult-use market in January 2018.

Gore, a chemical engineer, worked for Henkel Corp., a Dusseldorf-based multinational company that makes adhesives including Loctite superglue, beauty-care and shampoo items, and laundry products. She did product development and sales in the adhesives division.

Read more coverage of North Coast cannabis commerce: nbbj.news/cannabis

Her background in chemical engineering “is super useful,” Gore said. “I know the distillation process.”

The chemistry was challenging to develop in sativa-based Bright Blooms, gelées based on a French confection, paté de fruit, Warner said. Boxes of gelées, priced at $24, contain four squares of strawberry-basil and four of passion fruit for summer flavors. Each 39-calorie square contains 5 milligrams of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive chemical extracted from sativa, a strain of cannabis. The main ingredient is sugar.

“It’s an elevated gummy,” Gore said, “but without glycerin or gelatin. It’s more scrumptious, more satisfying. We rotate flavors quarterly. We use fresh, seasonal ingredients, what people are enjoying during that time.”

Earlier in the year the company had other gelée flavors based on apple and fennel. Fall 2017 will bring new flavors. “Our chef is developing it right now,” she said. The company has a total of six employees.

Milk chocolate Bliss Blossoms, at $28 a box, contain extract from indica strain, with 10 milligrams per serving. “Our woman consumer loves milk chocolate,” Gore said. “Dark (chocolate) is really important.” A third Garden Society product with dark chocolate and 5 milligrams of THC is planned for release in fall 2017.

“We had to look at how to emulsify cannabinoids,” Gore said, “make sure they are shelf-stable, not use artificial ingredients.”

Any cannabis-edibles company in California, including Garden Society, is subject to the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, Prop. 64, which prohibits cannabis products likely to attract children. California Assembly Bill 350, introduced in February and amended in the senate in June, would revise a section of the Business and Professions Code: “Cannabis products shall be: Not designed to be appealing to children or easily confused with commercially sold candy or foods that do not contain cannabis,” according to a summary of the bill from the legislative analyst. “A cannabis product shall not be made in the shape of a person, animal, insect or fruit.”

Each piece cannot contain more than 10 milligrams of THC. An edible product must be homogenized to ensure uniform dispersion of cannabinoids.

Manufacturers of edibles risk having uneven dosage throughout a product. “This part of the brownie is super-strong and this part has nothing,” Gore said. “We measure every step of the process” to achieve “consistency batch to batch and piece to piece” of THC quantities.

“You have to take into account the hydrophobicity of cannabis,” she said. “Cannabinoids want to stick together. They are oil-loving. Bright Blooms are water-based. We have to be homogeneous with different suspensions of molecules. It takes science, chemistry to do it effectively. The same goes for chocolate.”

“Cut the chocolate in half if you’re a new user,” Warner said.

Gore met with Christine Sosko, a biologist and Sonoma County’s environmental health and safety manager, to discuss manufacturing of cannabis edibles, even though they are not considered food products. Garden Society is regulated by the local health department.

Sosko advised Gore that the product has to be stored below 41 degrees Fahrenheit to keep it stable. The shelf life of cannabis edibles is at least six months, Gore said. “You don’t want to put it in the freezer. Over time, there will be a drop in cannabinoids. They will convert from THC and CBD (cannabidiol, one of more than 100 phytocannabinoids.)” to non-psychoactive cannabinols. “It’s degradation over time. It’s a pharmaceutical product,” she said.

“We are focused on keeping our core product line tight,” Gore said, “while we build the brand, get permits in place” to comply with new regulations in the industry. “In 2018 we can pivot, open up our product portfolio, be innovative and bold.”

Garden Society is a medical-cannabis collective that sells product through permitted dispensaries, farms and manufacturers. Once sale of adult-use cannabis is allowed, the company will transition to include that market.

One partner farm used by Garden Society is Shine on Farms, located in the Anderson Valley region of Mendocino County. Shine on Farms cultivation is outdoors in one acre, managed organically.

“The value is in selecting specific strains of cannabis that have properties we’re trying to provide,” Warner said, “focus and mindfulness” with sativa-based Bright Blooms. “We want them (farmers) growing plants that have the right terpenes and cannabinoids.” Indica-based chocolates have a calming effect conducive to sleep.

“This is a psychoactive product,” Gore said, noting that the company tests for THC content and pesticides. “We are building a brand that people can trust.”

“A lot of our target is new users,” primarily women, Warner said. Consistent psychoactive effects are essential for uses such as stress-relief. “They can take something low-dose, not opiate or alcohol.”

Gore had hip surgeries in 2012 and 2013 and used cannabis to manage pain. She serves as board treasurer of North Sonoma County Healthcare District, which runs Healdsburg’s hospital, and board member of Healthcare Foundation of Northern Sonoma Co. “I’m excited about cannabis going mainstream with physicians,” she said.

Warner’s husband recovered from lymphoma using cannabis for six months to combat pain and nausea induced by chemotherapy. “He was able to eat,” she said.

Cannabis “is falsely stigmatized,” Gore said. “My mom’s best friend has stage-four breast cancer” and convinced Gore to launch Garden Society. “I made product for her when she was going through her chemo battle.”

James Dunn covers technology, biotech, law, the food industry, and banking and finance. Reach him at: james.dunn@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4257.