HIGH TIMES goes inside Colorado’s premier edibles company, Dixie Elixirs, which is poised to dominate a newly legal industry with a mastery of cannabis food science.

Nestled snugly amidst the entwined interchanges, on-ramps, and bypasses of the I-70 corridor in the industrial section of North Denver, the nondescript building that houses Dixie Elixirs hides in plain sight, the first consideration in a very well-planned security system. Christie Lunsford, Dixie’s upbeat Marketing Director, greets me in the comfortable lobby and leads me on a whirlwind tour of the state’s most popular edibles manufacturer, which is best known for its a line of cannabis-infused sodas, but is also responsible for award-winning edibles, as well as tinctures, capsules, and topicals in a wide variety of dosages and flavors.

“We’re an artisan level hand-crafted edibles company,” Christie explains, “and we can make a lot of units because we’ve dialed in not only the science, but the processes and procedures to make things run smoothly.”

Prior to working for Dixie, Christie had founded her own cannabis topicals company, Cannabis Magic, with friend Deanna Gabriel, a clinical herbalist. After her company was acquired by Dixie in 2011, Lunsford stayed on to help guide the growing business and now she’s excited to see how the new recreational market will allow Dixie to expand.

“We have plans of going to five other markets this year, and Washington State has actually contacted us to ask about our lab testing, products, labels, and our different protocols for safety as they design their laws for adult recreational use.”

Since federal law still prohibits moving any cannabis products over state lines, Dixie Elixirs will need to establish new facilities in each market, a strategy that Lunsford says “isn’t the most cost-effective way to run a business like this, but it is the most compliant, and being compliant keeps us in business.”

Complying with Colorado’s stringent medical marijuana laws can be expensive and time-consuming, since each gram of cannabis needs to be tracked as it moves through the supply chain, but strict adherence to the law is part of Dixie’s mission to provide a positive, professional example for the edibles industry. As a good corporate citizen, they foster cutting-edge research and development into cannabis science as well as extensive education campaigns aimed at consumers. “Education is incredibly important to Dixie,” Lunsford remarks, “that’s why we have the most understandable, educational, compliant labels as part of our packaging.”

As part of a commitment to furthering science-based education about cannabis, Dixie has embraced laboratory testing. This enables the company to create consistent batches of edibles that always match the dosage levels listed on the packaging. “Dixie is the single largest tester of medical cannabis in the state of Colorado. We spot test every batch of edible and elixir to make sure that if it says 75 milligrams [of THC] on the packaging, then we’ve got 75 mg in there. So for whatever dosage it says on the label, I have a lab test to back it up,” Lunsford asserts. “It’s an investment we’ve made in our business but also in the relationship we have with our customers.” 

CannLabs uses high-pressure liquid chromatography to test Dixie’s products three times during the production cycle; first, when the raw material is brought in, again when the base extract is made, and finally when batches are ready to be packaged.

Sometimes even the production waste is tested, just to make sure all the THC is being properly extracted and no medicinal cannabinoids are lost. This level of quality control is necessary to constantly produce consistent batches of cannabis-infused foods, and it’s a step that too many edibles makers often overlook. Dixie will sometimes have competitor’s products tested, and their findings aren’t surprising to anyone who has bought a super-potent pot cookie once, only to be disappointed when they purchase it a second time. “There are a lot of other edibles companies that don’t bother with testing,” Lunsford says, “We will occasionally buy their stuff and have it tested, and it very rarely comes back at what they list on their packaging.”

Obviously, professionalism and consistency will go a long way to capture market share in newly legal states, but the science division at Dixie Elixirs is what makes this business a true industry leader. 

Working closely with the staff chef, Lexi Yurkovsky, and production manager, Jim Williams, the science division formulates the cannabinoid extracts that the culinary crew then uses as their base ingredient. Tamar Wise, director of the science division, explains how recipe development works. “Typically, we’ll throw out ideas and Lexi has the cooking expertise so she’ll tell us what kind of fats would be present. Then, we look at it from a molecular point of view, as in how cannabinoids will bind to this fat efficiently and then we’ll start making the product.” 

Wise has duel degrees in molecular cellular developmental biology and biochemistry from University of Colorado as well as a certificate in neuroscience. Wise co-directs the department with Darwin Millard, a mechanical engineer, and the science division provides a precise way of looking at the cannabinoids and creating extractions. “We put our base extract into different medicine delivery systems, depending on what it is going to be mixed with. That is how we get our drinks to look clear, because we are essentially making a microemulsion. We experiment with how we can get the extract to interact with the other ingredients, as well as get the dose to spread out evenly so there’s consistency throughout each batch.”

The main difference between the production process at Dixie and your average mom-and-pop edibles operation is the simple step of creating base extracts of THC and CBD to use as ingredients rather than simply infusing into butter or oil. “Consistency is much easier to control using an extract as an ingredient,” Tamar says, “With the method that we use – extracting from bud or trim and then refining that crude extract – we can absolutely guarantee that it is 100% activated. If you’re using your bud as an ingredient and you’re using the cooking process as your decarboxylation process, well sometimes the heat doesn’t get hot enough to actually activate the medicine. We utilize an extract as an ingredient so we can pick a dose and hit that dose exactly, versus using bud and trying to get it in the ballpark.”

Many of these extracts are created in the lab’s C02 extractor, a shiny collection of tubes and chambers that occupies its own small room, which Millard proudly shows off.

Supercritical fluid extractors are used commercially for all sorts of extraction applications, ranging from orange oils for household cleansers all the way to food-grade products like peppermint oils. “The extractor’s five liter column can hold about two pounds of dried cannabis trim, so we run this back-to-back consecutively all throughout the week to do 10-pound runs,” Darwin explains. “We can normally produce about a pound of activated THC per week after refinement and everything. Soon, we’re getting a 20 liter column that will let us do 10 pounds in one day, so with both columns we can do smaller client-based or strain specific runs as well as larger commercial runs.”

That pound of THC finds its way into any number of products, from the newly introduced Colorado Bars that each contain 300 milligrams, to the Dixie X capsules that balance THC and CBD in a 1:1 ratio for the greatest healing effect, which Tamar has experienced first-hand. “Cannabinoids are essentially vitamins, and if you take them consistently then you can prevent disease later in life,” she says. “Some illnesses like fibromyalgia or IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) – diseases where Western medicine hasn’t found a cause or reason why they develop – the recent hypothesis is that these are caused by an endocannabinoid deficiency. So if your body isn’t producing enough anandamide or 2AG and you are supplementing with phytocannabinoids, then you’ll notice a relief of symptoms because that was the cause in the first place – cannabinoid deficiency.”

So as cannabis laws continue to be reformed around the country and more and more people realize the benefits of cannabis for their health and well being, expect that Dixie Elixirs will continue to provide high-quality infused foods, beverages, and supplements to meet this growing demand. 

In fact, a line of non-psychoactive Dixie Botanicals, which contain high doses of cancer-fighting CBD extracted from hemp, but zero THC, are available online and can be shipped anywhere in US.

The possibilities are endless for cannabis scientists like Tamar, whose parting words conveyed the massive potential of the edibles industry: “What’s most exciting about cannabis is that it is a completely safe non-pharmaceutical option. It’s the medicine of the future.”