While Jones Soda is prohibited from selling its cannabis-infused offerings to only a few states, the tiny beverage maker is launching a drink made with hemp that will give it access to nearly all of the U.S.
Last month, the company launched Mary Jones HD9 craft sodas, which derive their THC from hemp delta-9, as opposed to cannabis. They are available in four flavors — Root Beer, Orange and Cream, Green Apple and Berry Lemonade — with more varieties planned for this year.
The sodas are available online in most states — except in Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho and Oregon where there are laws prohibiting the sale of hemp.
David Grigsby, Jones Soda’s senior brand director, said the new line helps the Seattle-based company centralize its manufacturing operations for the beverage, as opposed to the state-by-state patchwork of its cannabis products.
“We’ve been in the beverage space for 27 years through our mainline Jones Soda products, so we have a very deep Rolodex of distributors already in every state,” Grigsby said. “That was a big advantage for us.”
The 2018 farm bill legalized hemp as a way to help farmers create additional commerce. It created a loophole for an unregulated copycat of marijuana — and opened up opportunities for companies such as Jones Soda.
The primary difference between marijuana and hemp is that hemp contains small amounts of THC. The federal law states that hemp sold can “contain no more than 0.3% delta-9 THC on a dry-weight basis.”
According to Grigsby, it is a far less tedious process to produce hemp-derived products than cannabis. For the latter, companies must access growers, producers and distributors within each state it is selling. It is illegal for cannabis THC-infused products to cross state lines.
“One of the biggest challenges is this strain it puts on companies to be able to manage separate packaging, each day in separate facilities,” Grigsby said. The HD9 craft sodas are “really going to make the process much more efficient.”
With the new product line, Jones Soda can expand the distribution of Mary Jones into more retail locations — such as grocery and liquor stores. It will be distributed with items like beer and wine in the traditional beverage ecosystem, as opposed to its cannabis-derived products.
Jones Soda is starting with three dosages for the hemp-derived drinks: containing 2.5, 5 and 10 milligrams of THC per can. That way, consumers in states where cannabis-infused drinks are not permitted can ease into a “microdose” of THC.
“We want to start low and go slow, and really educate the consumer on finding what’s right for them,” Grigsby said.
The HD9 sodas are available at retail locations in six states, with more to come. And Jones Soda is producing other hemp-derived Mary Jones options for more experienced consumers. At dispensaries, it plans to sell higher-dose 20- and 100-milligram cans.
The strategy of pivoting to hemp delta-9 products to allow for greater distribution is being employed by other THC beverage products, such as seltzer brands Cycling Frog and Cloud 8. Grigsby said the hemp in the drinks metabolizes the same way cannabis does, making it just as potent for potential consumers.
“The majority of hemp beverages are seltzer-based, and with Mary Jones we are able to offer a full flavor and great-tasting product for a more indulgent experience,” Grigsby said.
While taking advantage of the farm bill loophole allows brands to grow their profile among consumers they otherwise could not reach, some find the hemp strategy questionable.
Spiros Malandrakis, head beverage industry researcher at Euromonitor International, said the farm bill was not designed to allow hemp-derived THC products to be sold. As a result, the impact of hemp delta-9 soda being widely available is not fully known yet.
“Maybe at some point some kids bring it home, and then you’ll have a couple of newspapers going crazy about it, and the state decides to change the law in the other direction,” Malandrakis said. “Building strategies on legislative mistakes is risky.”
Jones Soda is still focused on selling its cannabis-derived sodas.
This year, it will launch Fizzy Tab, a low-dose tablet-shaped hard candy product containing 2.5 milligrams of THC per piece, Grigsby told Food Dive in January.