Creating drinkable cannabis products could have deadly consequences if producers of a new class of buzz-inducing beverages fail to follow existing guidelines, a leading food safety expert is warning.

Alcohol giant Constellation Brands agreed earlier this week to pay $245 million for a nearly 10-per-cent stake in Canopy Growth – the largest Canadian producer of cannabis – with the intent of developing marijuana-based drinks. While the American company behind such major brands as Corona Beer has no immediate plans for pot-infused drinks, Rick Holley argues any producer that hastily brings those products to market could lead to substantial harm.

“[Producers] could screw this all up if they don’t get into the mechanics of how to safely prepare and develop new food products,” the veteran food safety expert, who previously ran the University of Manitoba’s Department of Food Science and is currently a professor emeritus at the school, told BNN via telephone.

“They could kill people,” he added, though not in reference to any specific company.

Holley notes long-established guidelines already exist to keep dangerous elements out of food and drink production, adding “as long as they are taken into account, it becomes very clear what steps need to be taken to ensure safe production.”

In its announcement Monday morning, Constellation stressed it would only start making cannabis-based drinks when it is legal “at all government levels.”

The statement implied Constellation would not be entering the already crowded drinkable cannabis market in American states where the drug is legal as it remains banned federally. A company spokesperson told BNN via email Constellation “has a long-standing commitment to producing products with the highest quality standards and that comply with all regulations.”

Unlike alcohol, which kills bacteria and toxins, Lawrence Goodridge argues integrating cannabis in the place of alcohol may require a very different production process.

“Because cannabis is a plant, there are certain concerns -- like the possibility of pesticides used in production, or the type of fertilizer used, or the potential presence of heavy metals that could be toxic to humans,” the McGill University food safety expert explained to BNN in a telephone interview.

“Bacteria like e-coli or listeria that could be on the plant and that could make it onto the food, whether it is drinks or edibles, the risk is the same -- but alcohol is special because we know that helps to kill some of those toxins,” Goodridge said. “The Canadian government will have to come up with food safety guidelines that adjust to this.”

Holley argues products from large producers like Constellation would carry less risk due to their experience dealing with similar safety regulations, but the “risk is much higher” with many smaller producers looking to cash in on what is broadly expected to be a very lucrative industry post-legalization, amid fears they could end up “cutting corners” in the rush to market.

Concerns are already being raised over drinkable cannabis being potentially more dangerous than smoking the drug, as the amount of THC in a drinkable product – which determines its potency – can vary much more dramatically in edibles and drinks. A quick online search of drinkable cannabis products currently available in Washington State revealed a range of items where a single serving can contain as little as 10mg of THC to more than 150mg.

The federal government remains on track to establish a legal cannabis market across Canada by the start of July 2018, but edible and drinkable forms of the drug will remain banned. While Ottawa hopes to have those regulations in place within one year of legalization – by July of 2019 – McGill’s Goodridge said the feds don’t have time to waste.

Little if any work appears to have been done thus far. Health Canada pointed BNN to a Q&A website published in April when asked for details on any preliminary efforts to prepare edible/drinkable cannabis regulations. Asked whether any additional work had been done in the six months since the website was last modified, a department spokesperson did not immediately respond.

“Guidelines will need to be drawn up and typically Health Canada or the Canadian Food Inspection Agency would then need to have a consultation period when the public can comment. So these things take time,” Goodridge said. “If they are going to meet that [July 2019] target they certainly need to start talking about this now and working on this now.”