Photograph by Flickr user Prensa 420, Creative Commons 2.0
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Marijuana "edibles" are poised to go way beyond the scope of these funky cookies.
Photograph by Flickr user Prensa 420, Creative Commons 2.0

Sniffing Out What’s ‘Edible,’ Legal in Marijuana Dining

Last fall I received a media invitation to a cooking demonstration. Nothing strange there: A charismatic chef advocated using the best locally grown ingredients to an enthusiastic audience reaching for samples of tomato soup, grilled cheese sandwiches, and truffle popcorn.

But this demo came with a uniformed police officer ensuring that samplers had a government-issued card allowing patient access to the medical marijuana program. That’s because every dish contained marijuana’s intoxicating compound, THC, extracted from the cannabis plant and heat-infused into butter and oil using a straightforward, precise kitchen technology appliance. (More on that later.)

This is the story of an ingredient and its power to turn any food, from Bolognese to béarnaise, into a marijuana “edible.” Edibles have similar effects to smoking marijuana, without the displeasure that some find from smoking and with the usual pleasure that comes from just eating great food.

The important issue of legalizing medical marijuana has raised a discussion about recreational edibles. More people than ever are taking edibles seriously as both public health and recreational regulatory issues that must be addressed, although any time the topic is marijuana, just accept that someone in the room is going to giggle. Ingesting it is probably preferable to smoking (especially for, say, lung cancer patients) to achieve some of marijuana’s therapeutic effects, which can include increased appetite, analgesic properties, and sleep induction.

With 23 states and Washington, D.C. having some type of medical marijuana program, the high-end edibles industry is just beginning to bloom in some of those jurisdictions under the watchful, and taxing, government’s eye. (Note to White Time to update your Marijuana Resource Center.) Add in recent recreational marijuana legalizations (to varying degrees) in Washington state, Colorado, Alaska, and D.C., and edibles have a 90s dot-com energy, especially when combined with the general trends toward artisan, small-batch food.

The newness and fragility of legalization and everyone’s desire to get it right or have the industry driven underground again has many acting carefully and conservatively in cooking. No one is quite sure how the federal government will enforce its anti-marijuana policies, especially with a new administration—expect marijuana businesses to donate big time to the 2016 election.

“The underground market is becoming a small business; this is the legitimizing of an industry,” says Garyn Angel, who developed the machine used in the cooking demonstration I attended. His machine infuses plant extractions, like THC, into fats, like oil and butter. Insert marijuana and push a button, and Angel’s Magical Butter machine transforms THC into an ingredient for chefs and home cooks. It’s uncomplicated food technology that inspired Angel’s marijuana food truck in Denver last year, which served bahn mi and barbeque pulled pork.

In Colorado, edibles are legally bought and sold for recreational purposes. New regulations now require strict labeling and packaging rules and potency restrictions so that it’s less likely for people to consume them accidentally or to over-consume THC and have a Maureen Dowd experience. Certainly edibles’ novelty are proving particularly popular with tourists who might not be able to light up in a hotel room or back home.

On the other end of the spectrum in Washington D.C., the city council is making laws to keep pot out of commerce (“Home Use, Home Grown,” says the police chief), as legalization is perceived as more of a criminal justice issue. The market may not be ripe, but the experiments are on to see which varieties add spicy, floral, or bitter notes.

D.C. residents—including chefs—are starting to grow marijuana kitchen gardens and experiment with home-cooking edibles with the up to two ounces of marijuana they can legally possess in addition to the plants. (No word on how people are actually supposed to procure the two ounces if they can’t purchase marijuana, the so-called “immaculate conception” problem.)

Not every cook is a gardener. Angel works with chefs outside of D.C. to pick marijuana strains specifically chosen for cooking. “Cannabis is an herb, and as with any herb you want to highlight some properties and downplay others; there are some strains you want to avoid simply for their strong flavor.” (This is why marijuana consumers will probably want to avoid the supposedly in-development Skinnygirl product, that reportedly avoids “munchies.” If you’re ever had Skinnygirl margaritas or wine, you can probably guess how good the marijuana will taste.)

Stephanie Kahn, co-owner with her husband Rabbi Jeffrey Kahn of the D.C. medical marijuana dispensary Takoma Wellness Center, says they “advise those planning on making edibles at home to start with low doses and understand that they won’t feel anything immediately.” Edibles’ effects generally come on more slowly than smoking. Many Takoma Wellness Center patients smoke marijuana and she supports that choice.

At the same time, Kahn was a nurse for several decades and she sees clients “who quit smoking cigarettes and don’t want to be triggered. Our patients’ health is the most important thing to us.” There are currently no edibles for legal purchase in D.C., medical or recreational, so patients cook at home with machines like Angel’s.

And since medical marijuana is used specifically to relieve symptoms, different strains of are cultivated and categorized with great detail for medical use. Some types make the user sleepy, some alert, some energetic, some calm, depending on what a patient needs therapeutically. There is simply a lot of nuanced information about marijuana, beyond just a “high,” that is available because of medical categorization.

Marijuana edibles are at the intersection of the DIY, backyard garden, local foods, and artisanal foods movements. The story of this ingredient has been developing for years. Now that Ben and Jerry are talking about putting a pint of Cannabis Cone next to Chubby Hubby, the tipping point has arrived.