A new name in chocolate will soon be produced in New Paltz, but it’s under the care of a name that has a 20-plus-year history in this area: Lagusta’s Luscious. It’s also being backed by loyal fans of that brand, who provided loans that wouldn’t have come through bank: even a whiff of cannabis makes that impossible, due to the legal ambiguity of that plant at the federal level. The name “Softer Sweets” is being used to comply with requirements that a different business entity be formed when the products contain cannabidiol – CBD — a chemical compound found in cannabis and hemp plants that’s legal to sell or use in some circumstances. The Softer Sweets brand won’t look like Lagusta’s Luscious chocolates, but they will be made by some of the same hands, from some of the same ethically-sourced vegan ingredients, in the same town at the former Mac’s Iron Works building on North Putt Corners Road.
CBD and THC: what’s what
CBD is the second-most active ingredient in cannabis, according to Peter Grinspoon, a medical doctor who wrote a post about the chemical for the Harvard Health blog, published last September 24. The compound can also be extracted from hemp plants, or manufactured in a laboratory. Hemp and marijuana are the same plant, as far as botanists are concerned, but lawmakers wanted to figure out a way cultivate this incredibly versatile plant without encouraging anyone to stick it in a pipe and smoke it. Scientist Ernest Small suggested a limit of .3% THC — the molecule more properly called delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol — in the 2009 book The Species Problem in Cannabis: Science & Semantics. That line — which Small admitted was an arbitrary one — was used in a 2018 law that removed “hemp” from the list of controlled substances, but not “marijuana” (or “marihuana,” as it’s spelled in New York laws). As of 2018, CBD is not a controlled substance in the United States, as long as it didn’t come from a “marijuana” plant.
Regardless of the spelling, “marijuana” is itself a word with a problematic past. In an August, 2020 Healthline article, Sian Ferguson explained that the word only became common a century ago, when Mexican refugees from the revolution in that country inspired a not-uncommon American response, racism. The cannabis plant was already known, but as “marijuana” it became associated with that group of dark-skinned immigrants. “The U.S. government used the term “marijuana” in anti-cannabis propaganda to cement the association between cannabis and Mexican immigrants. This anti-cannabis propaganda spread a great deal of myths around cannabis while also perpetuating racist stereotypes,” Ferguson wrote. This is one of the reasons the word “cannabis” is again becoming more widely used, but that can be confusing given the distinction without a difference between “marijuana” and “hemp” in the law. Cannabis products include rope, and nutritious seeds, and kind bud and CBD. It’s all the same plant that was grown for George Washington, and that has been cultivated by humans for at least five thousand years.
THC is what brings the giggles, the permagrin, the distorted sense of the passage of time, the deep philosophical thoughts about the universe being a giant doughnut and the squinting and red eyes; it also is associated with eliminating nausea, controlling pain and for treating conditions including glaucoma and multiple sclerosis. It’s unambiguously illegal under federal law, but since it’s now legal in New York, the chances of getting arrested for using are small right now. No one who doesn’t have a medical marijuana card can legally obtain the stuff in New York yet, though, as the rules for capturing and distributing the anticipated tax revenues haven’t been finalized and adopted yet.
CBD is a different molecule, and it hits different. There are a lot of claims that it helps with anxiety, insomnia, depression and chronic pain, among other concerns. These are not claims one will find on the labels of CBD products, since the science to support them isn’t quite there yet. According to Grinspoon, the best evidence is around treating forms of childhood epilepsy, to reduce the number of seizures. Some animal studies hint at the possibility of the chemical being good for the above afflictions, or to lessen addiction cravings. With more interest and fewer legal hurdles, scientists may in time be able to provide stronger evidence around any of these possibilities, or others.
Convincing a reluctant chocolatier
Lagusta Yearwood started selling chocolate under the Lagusta’s Luscious brand in 2003, according to posts on the company Facebook page. The products have always been infused with Yearwood’s values, which include an abiding concern for the suffering that results from blindly embracing capitalism. Sourcing ingredients that don’t stem from the suffering of humans or any other animal means that the true cost of production has to be passed on to the consumer, hence a $10 chocolate bar is to be expected. That cost may not seem outrageous if one factors in paying a fair price to producers and a fair wage to workers, which is part of the whole package.
One of those fairly-paid employees, Shana Napoli, “learned from Lagusta in all things,” as the job at Lagusta’s was Napoli’s first. Napoli took that training in chocolate and ethical business practices and relocated to Colorado, coming to work for a cannabis edibles company. There, Napoli learned even more about confections and also about making cannabis-infused foods. When Yearwood convinced this former employee to return, the Napoli that showed up was infused with knowledge about this nascent industry and a passion to bring these products to the masses.
At first, “I wasn’t interested,” Yearwood recalls. Cannabis had never been part of the chocolatier’s life. However, in the presence of Napoli’s passion and knowledge, Yearwood started to come around, and “realized that it should be us,” if anyone was going to dive into this new market. After researching the legal status of all cannabis products in New York, it was decided to take the plunge into CBD products and then add a THC-infused venture once the rules around that are settled. Learning that a different business needed to be formed for each, Yearwood and Napoli decided to partner with Mike McGregor and Ericka Wadleigh — also key people in Lagusta’s Luscious — to create two limited liability companies. The CBD candies will have “Softer Power Sweets” on the label, and when a THC line of chocolates is created, it will be called “Soft Power Sweets.”
The separate legal entities are necessary to comply with all the rules, but that doesn’t mean that everyone won’t be part of the same family-like group that produces Lagusta’s Luscious and staffs Commissary, Yearwood’s eatery on Church Street. That will become more apparent with the new building just about fully operational. All of the production will be moved to the new North Putt Corners Road building — but current employees have been promised that they will not have to work with cannabis if they’d prefer not. The Church Street location will eventually be closed, with Commissary being relocated into the North Front Street building. Production capacity is expected to be much higher, and feelers have been put out through social media to a hire a manager to grow the wholesale operation.
Faithful customers, reliable lenders
Social media isn’t just used to post pictures of mouthwatering chocolates and hunt for job applicants. Customers of the Lagusta’s Luscious brand adore the chocolate, but also the values that infuse every bite, such as scrutinizing suppliers for ethical and environmental problems, and ensuring that everyone along the way is being paid a fair wage for their work. Many business owners gush about treating employees like partners or customers like family, but the evidence is strong that there is a genuine relationship here that is much deeper than snacking on furious vulvas, a bittersweet chocolate with pink peppercorns and Hawaiian pink sea salt.
A challenge faced in any business with a significant cannabis component is the fact that THC is still a federally-controlled substance. While fears that federal agents would start raiding establishments legalized in various states have not come to pass, it’s nearly impossible to engage in normal business banking around these products. Any bank with a federal charter is led by people nervous about that charter being revoked. When putting together a business plan for Softer Power Sweets, it became clear that this fear extends even to CBD, because it comes from the same plant. It became clear that a traditional bank loan to purchase the new building was not an option, and instead an appeal was made to existing customers of Lagusta’s Luscious. “It was basically our only option,” Yearwood explained, because financing for a cannabis business carried interest rates that were too high to make sense.
“The metrics that banks have for determining who is eligible for funding don’t take into account a myriad of factors that I could address with our customers directly, such as the cannabis aspect and the various ways (pro and con) the pandemic has affected the business,” Yearwood said. “It’s a more personal way of running a business that suits our entire approach. Not to mention that it doesn’t rely on cycling our capital through a large multi-national entity.” With some thoughtful posts and personal appeals, low-cost loans from customers were obtained instead to secure the building.
Softer Power Sweets is expected to be launched sometime in April — just not on the 20th. The former Mac’s Iron Works building is being retooled for a different kind of production on the inside, and there are plans to beautify the exterior, too: ivy grows well on steel buildings, and there’s talk of a mural facing the Thruway. It’s almost as if the attractive outside will herald something wondrous and delicious that’s hidden within, just like in a box of chocolates.