In March, Ben and Jerry’s co-founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield told HuffPost Live they’d consider making a marijuana ice cream for markets with legalized marijuana. That might not be entirely surprising, considering the company’s hippy vibe—but these days cannabis cuisine is about a lot more than hippies baking pot brownies.
With laws legalizing marijuana for recreational use existing in four states, and pot legal for medical use in 23 states, the market is growing, but also has plenty of room to expand further. In Canada, medical marijuana has been legal for years and there are indications that wider legalization could arrive sooner rather than later.
This means that savvy entrepreneurs are rethinking the pairing of food and pot, long a combination relegated to munchie-induced junk food binges. Cannabis startups are bringing in big money, Forbes reported, and investors are increasingly open about their interest in the sector. The magazine named legal pot the year’s best startup opportunity. Cannabusiness Media estimated that at least $1.6 billion of marijuana was sold for legal medical use in the United States last year, and at least $600 million sold for legal recreational use—and their prediction is that legal weed will be an $8-billion business by 2018.
All that money—and potential future revenue—translates into increased interest in the sector, which also leads to education and greater knowledge about just what can be done with marijuana, including its culinary applications. “Once-popular misconceptions about cannabis are changing,” said Garyn Angel of MagicalButter, a company that manufactures a botanical extractor for infusing liquids or fats with marijuana. “There have been remarkable advancements over the last five years. New varieties of plants, new products, new uses—this world is truly being revolutionized.”
One thing some might not realize is that pot is not a botanical monolith—there are many different strains, which have different psychoactive effects as well as different tastes and smells. The sativa strain produces a high-energy effect, where the indica strain relaxes—as indicated by its “in the couch” nickname. Events can be planned around the effects of particular strains—sativa to get things going and indica to wind things down, for example. And pot can be used strategically to enhance the tastes and smells of foods and drinks.
There is more than one way to compare the trend towards cannabis cuisine to the pairing of wines or beers with food, and the analogy is useful both for understanding how chefs consider taste and smell when pairing food and marijuana and appreciating the overall experience added to a meal. “I commonly refer to cannabis doing to food what Robert Mondovi did with wine dinners in Napa the ‘80s,” Curry said.
Photo courtesy of Cheri Sicard
Cookbook author Cheri Sicard also brought up the comparisons between wine and cannabis. “Beyond the practicalities of wanting more versatile foods, there is the whole gourmet flavor aspect of cannabis cooking which is quite sophisticated and has a lot in common with wine pairings,” she said, “as you are matching flavor terpenes in the marijuana with foods that share the flavor profiles. There is a lot of interesting territory for adventurous chefs to explore with cannabis cooking.”
Terpenes are found in all plants, said Melissa Parks, a cannabis culinary consultant who specializes in edibles product development and terpene pairing dinners. For example, when paired with crispy sea bass, Strawberry Haze can enhance the dish even if smelled before eating, Parks said—and if smoked after eating, it clears the palate and enhances the palate for dessert.
“It can actually enhance the flavor or compliment the flavor, or be a beautiful contrast to the dish,” Parks said.
“The goal in legal markets is to locally source specific pure strains of cannabis products with distinct characteristics for our salves, tinctures and edibles,” said Chef Payton Curry, owner of the restaurant Brat Haus in Scottsdale and product development and cuisine consultant to MariMed Advisors. “The emerging market is craving an edible line that is ‘land crafted,’ as I call it.” Curry focuses on natural, healthy ingredients like local honey or heirloom medjool date syrup for infusions or local pecans for nut butters.
Garyn Angel got the inspiration for MagicalButter from a friend who smoked cannabis to control his Crohn’s disease. Angel began researching cannabis butter as an alternative, and began his own work on the project in order to help his friend come up with more consistent results. Literally hundreds of different foods can be made using MagicalButter, Angel said—their own site includes infused oils, salad dressings, sauces, and baked goods, among other options.
Meanwhile, cannabis cookbooks are moving out from the underground. In a recent Publisher’s Weekly article, Skyhorse Publishing editor Nicole Frail said, “I think people who want to experiment with cannabis as an ingredient will appreciate a more high end cookbook with sophisticated recipes.” Skyhorse will publish The Cannabis Kitchen Cookbook: Feel-Good Food for Home Cooks by Robyn Griggs Lawrence in September. Pot recipes are not just for college parties anymore.
Photo courtesy of Cheri Sicard
Along with the recreational uses, many of the same products provide advantages for people using marijuana for medical indications. MagicalButter, for example, can be used by patients who’d like to consume cannabis instead of smoking it. When eaten instead of smoked, cannabis is metabolized by the liver, then converted from Delta-9-THC to 11-Hydroxy-THC, which has the benefit of being more potent. “For many patients it’s a less expensive way to medicate than, say, smoking cannabis,” Angel said of consuming pot-laced foods.
Cannabis-infused foods—or medibles—have the fastest growth rate in the cannabis marketplace, said S. Rowan Wilson, founder and CEO of Mary Jane’s World. “A good ‘access point’ will now have around 35% of its products as edibles,” Wilson said. “Colorado now sees up to 50 percent of the products in recreational stores moving as edibles.”
Therapeutic use of cannabis is also the way to changing attitudes for some. Chef Curry experienced a shift in his perspective towards marijuana when he saw how it helped a family member experience relief from some symptoms related to Lyme disease and autism. “I then began to look at it as providing children with cannabis as a nutrient as well as a medicine,” Curry said. “When you look at certain conditions as nutrient deficiencies and cannabis as a vegetable satisfying those deficiencies, it makes better sense.”
Sicard’s exploration of marijuana began when she became a medical marijuana patient herself. A professional food writer and recipe developer before that point, Sicard—whose book Mary Jane: The Complete Marijuana Handbook for Women came out in April—wrote her first book, The Cannabis Gourmet Cookbook, after encountering misinformation and conflicting opinions in her own research.
For some people, getting high is not the point of marijuana use, and so methods that result in the least buzz possible are desirable—especially for medibles. “At MariMed Advisors, we are after high-CBD [cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive compound] and low-THC strains that can be made into tinctures with local honey and natural oils, lotions, strips, and other edible and non-edible products to treat specific conditions, such as helping children suffering from seizures, soldiers and new mothers diagnosed with PTSD, and cancer patients suffering from chemo-induced nausea,” Curry said. “Hemp has CBD with THC, but has been proven time after time to be ineffective. The reason for this is that the human body’s CB1 and CB2 receptors benefit from the entourage effect of the combined CBD and THC. We are talking about 28.7 CBD to 1.7 THC. This THC level is 15 times lower than that allowed in dispensaries across the U.S.”
The increasing advocacy for the medical and therapeutic use of cannabis by medical professionals is a big part of the movement towards legalization, Parks said. “It’s slowly starting to chip away at those fears,” Parks said, “and with that a curiosity comes.” That curiosity leads to growing exploration and education, something she advocates for in her meals and culinary work.
Whether it’s being offered for recreational or medicinal purposes, it’s important for chefs to focus not only on the way a particular strain pairs with food but also on its potency—how strongly it could affect a particular consumer. “I don’t ever find it funny when I hear about events where things went downhill because of the unknown butter,” Curry said.
“Dosing with edibles can be tricky,” Sicard said. “There is no easier way for someone to ingest too much marijuana than by eating it.” A person won’t overdose in the way that they could with a drug like heroin, but they could still end up feeling paranoid and uncomfortable—and a negative experience like that from the outset could put someone off cannabis altogether.
“Until a national guideline is established, we must approach cannabis cuisine very responsibly,” said Perry Anzilotti of Incredibles Medibles, and author of The Incredibles Medibles Cookbook. “The danger of over-medicating is evident and oftentimes overlooked.” Anzilotti said that his overall approach is “less is more” and he employs a lighter touch when cooking with cannabis—his goal is never to get anybody blitzed.
At this point four states—Alaska, Colorado, Washington, and Oregon—along with the District of Columbia have approved marijuana for recreational use. The trend points to legal access to marijuana for both medicinal and recreational purposes only increasing.
But with the laws changing and varying by state, those in the business of cannabis cuisine have to stay up on an increasingly shifting landscape. “We rely on local counsel and our esteemed colleagues whenever our food truck visits a new city,” Angel said of Samich, his food truck selling cannabis-infused foods. “If you see our food truck selling food you know it’s legal to eat.”
Angel’s truck continues to travel the country, selling where it can and educating otherwise. It’s also part of the touring CannaBall Run, which visits states with legal recreational marijuana use and those close to going in that direction. “It is our hope one day to have food trucks in all fifty states,” he said.
However, the legal gray area is abundant. “If a certain jurisdiction within a state does happen to allow it, there may be limits placed on the amount sold, or the amounts of certain cannabinoids the food may contain,” Angel said. “In general, infused foods are the most regulated part of the industry.” Laws do affect where Mary Jane’s World can ship some of their products, Wilson said, though she pointed out that hemp can be shipped throughout the U.S.
Even in states where the recreational use of marijuana is allowed, it’s not legal to serve marijuana cuisine in any public restaurant in the United States, Curry said. The only option is to serve foods cooked with marijuana, or accompanied by the plant, at private catered dinners in states that allow recreational use.
But as things stand right now, there is some level of risk involved in setting up cannabis dinners even in legal states, Sicard pointed out, because marijuana is still illegal federally—and that risk can vary greatly by geographic location.
Whether it’s for treatment, recreation, or culinary experimentation, the business of culinary cannabis looks set to expand—in terms of both profits and ideas.
“The cannabis culture has and always will be about having fun and helping others,” Angel said. “Most people see the growth ahead and the beneficial uses of cannabis and hemp. Every day more mainstream companies get involved in the industry.”
And as an increasing variety of businesses get on board with cannabis cuisine, others are preparing for a day when legalization widens. Terra Tech makes greenhouses that are currently used to grow leafy greens and herbs, but the company intends to move into the growth of marijuana plants when that’s a legal option.
By setting up greenhouses that are operational now, Terra Tech is positioned to get into the cannabis industry on the ground floor. “Our model allows us to build out infrastructure across the country in a legal way, and then use these facilities to capitalize on changing cannabis laws,” said Terra Tech COO Ken Vandevrede. “We’re set up to be able to shift any of our facilities to cannabis is within 48 hours.” The features of the greenhouses—computers that allow for control of nutrient blends, humidity, light, and temperature—and the interests of their customers—high-nutrient, non-GMO, pesticide-free plants—are the same whether growing thyme or cannabis.
Several other companies are doing the legwork now to prepare for increased marijuana legalization and the business opportunities that will come from that, Parks said. Food trucks, restaurants, and other culinary businesses will be part of that future. Marijuana may not be the oldest industry, but it’s one we’ve been with for a while, and it’s close to undergoing major changes—on the legal front, and in the continuing shift in the cultural views on cannabis.
“There’s a very positive outlook and a very motivated outlook in the way that the industry is going to grow,” Parks said.
“I would urge everyone to keep an open mind about cannabis and revisit whatever opinions they have about this remarkable plant,” Angel said. “Cannabis is certainly not for everyone, but it has far more benefits to people than most imagine. If we stumbled upon this plant today in the rain forest it would be hailed as a miracle plant.”
Terri Coles is a freelance writer living in St. John’s, Newfoundland. She’s a recovering picky eater.