San Francisco's foodies are bringing new tastes and sensibilities to eating marijuana
CANNABIS Marijuana edibles have come a long way in a short time.
Just a few years ago, the norm was still brownies of uncertain dosage that tasted like eating weed, right down to the occasional stem or lump of leaf, served in a wax paper envelope. But now the foodies have gotten into the game, producing a huge variety of tasty treats that are incredibly delicious even before the munchies kick in.
San Francisco could be on the verge of a culinary revolution that would parallel those being experienced in the realms of boutique eateries, gourmet coffee, and high-end street food vendors — except for the fact that makers of cannabis edibles still reside in a legal limbo.
As long as they're operating under the umbrella of a cannabis collective, getting marijuana from its growers and selling through its dispensaries, then the weed bakers are in compliance with state law. But they're still illegal under federal law, and even California law doesn't allow them to operate independently as wholesalers, making it difficult to scale up operations and do more than just break even financially.
Judging from the skittishness of some of San Francisco's top edibles producers — who didn't want to be identified by their real names and were wary of letting us know too much about their operations — they perform this labor of love under a cloud of understandable paranoia.
"Unfortunately, secrecy is a rule we have to live by, day in and day out," said the founder of Auntie Dolores, who we'll call Jay. She makes a line of popular, strong, and yummy products that include pretzels, chili lime peanuts, caramel corn, and cookies of all kinds.
Yet the legal threats haven't stopped producers from professionalizing the edibles industry — in terms of quality control, packaging, consistency, and innovation — and drawing on foodie sensibilities and their own culinary training to develop creative new products that effectively mask or subtly incorporate that bitter cannabis taste.
"We're all about masking the flavor of the cannabis because I really don't like the flavor that much," Jay said of products that are stronger than most but somehow without a hint of weed in them. "People here have a high standard. It's their medicine and their food, and we have a lot of foodies who are really into our products."
Choco-Potamus is an example of this new generation of edibles, combining gourmet chocolate-making with the finest strains of cannabis, using only the best buds rather than the leaves and other plant matter that have often gone into edibles. Mrs. Hippo, the pseudonym of the chief baker, has worked for a national company in the food industry for about a decade, mostly doing branding, and it shows in this eye-catching product.
"I'm kind of a foodie. We have friends who roast whole pigs and brew their own beer, that kind of thing," she said. "Really good high-grade marijuana has some really great flavor qualities, particularly when combined with cocoa. I really want the patients to enjoy the flavor, not just the feeling."
Steve DeAngelo, founder of Oakland's Harborside Health Center, one of the Bay Area's biggest dispensaries, said edibles have been increasingly popular, particularly among older users, patients with medical conditions that make smoking problematic, or those who prefer the longer body highs of eating it.
"Our sales of edibles has trended steadily upward since we opened," DeAngelo said, noting that last year the club sold $1.2 million in edibles, about 5.5 percent of total sales, compared to $306,000 (3.2 percent) after they opened in 2006. "As an absolute amount, we've seen the amount of edibles quadruple in the last four and a half years. As percentage of sales, we've seen it double."
He said the main difference between eating and smoking marijuana is duration and onset. Smoking it brings on the high within minutes and it usually last for less than two hours, whereas eating it takes about 45 minutes for the effects to kick in, but they can then last for six to eight hours.
"There are different forms for different symptoms," he said, noting that edibles are perfect for someone with insomnia or other symptoms that disturb normal sleep patterns, while someone who needs marijuana in the morning can smoke or vaporize it and have the effects mostly gone by the time they go to work.
"When you eat it, it goes through your limbic system, so it hits your brain differently," said Jay of Auntie Dolores, saying that she and many others prefer the subtle differences in the high they get from eating cannabis. Others who prefer edibles are those looking to just take the edge off without being too stoned. "A lot of the people who like the edibles are moms. They don't want to smell like pot or be too high," Mrs. Hippo said.
She noted that her chocolates are not as strong as many of the edibles out there, with each candy bar containing two doses. "It's a personal preference for how I want the bars to taste," she said, although she has been working on making a stronger version as well, which many dispensaries and their customers prefer.
But Mr. and Mrs. Hippo say they think taste is becoming as important as strength, calling it an emerging area of the market. "I have a dream that there could be just an edibles dispensary," Mr. Hippo said, envisioning a pot club with the look and feel of a high-end bakery.
For now, demand for edibles is still driven by "potency and packaging," says SPARC founder Erich Pearson. "I think people eat food to eat food and enjoy. They don't eat to get high." Yet as long as they're getting high in this competitive marijuana marketplace, the edibles makers have been making better and better tasting products.
Jade Miller makes 12 flavors of cannabis-infused drinks under the Sweet Relief label, with spiced apple cider being her top seller. She draws other training at New York City's Institute for Culinary Education to make some of the best-tasting drinks on the market.
"I got into it because I needed alternative pain relief when I had whooping cough and a torn shoulder muscle," Miller told us.
She was injured while on a cooking job with Whole Foods Catering in September 2006. She hated the opiates that she was prescribed for her shoulder pain, preferring marijuana. But when she contracted whooping cough, she couldn't smoke pot anymore without painful coughing, so she got into making edibles.
At the time, many of the pot-laced foods out there weren't very good or professionally made. "Some edibles were inedible," she said. "I became a one-woman campaign against brownies."
With a background in homeopathy and appreciation for marijuana, Jay started making edibles 10 years ago, informally helping two aunts battling cancer. But in the last couple of years she's honed her recipes, improved her packaging, and transformed her Auntie Dolores snacks into some of the best on the market, available in several local dispensaries, such as Medithrive, SPARC, Bernal Heights Dispensary, and Shambhala.
"I just knew I could make stronger and better-tasting stuff," she said. "The demand from the patients is really high for great products."
Horror stories abound about users who overdosed on edibles and ended up being incapacitated all day or night, but that's mostly been a problem of dosage, which modern technology has helped overcome. Choco-Potamus and other makers routinely send their batches to a lab for testing.
"The idea is we can be helping an edibles producer or a tincture maker quantify the cannabis in the product," said Anna Ray Grabstein, CEO of Steep Hill Laboratory in Oakland, which tests cannabis and related products for strength and purity. "They're able to use that information to create consistency in their recipes."
It's been difficult to meet the rising demand given the current legal framework.
"Yes, we would love to scale up. I'd love it if more people had access to our product. We'd love to sell it outside of California," Jay said. "But it's tricky because there's so many gray areas,"
Larry Kessler is the program manager for the San Francisco Department of Public Health's Medical Cannabis Dispensary Inspection Program, which reviews the procedures of edibles makers and requires those who work with one than one dispensary to get a certified food handler license from the state.
"We just want to make sure they know what they're doing," Kessler told us.
San Francisco has some unique rules, banning edibles that require refrigeration or other special handling, granting exceptions on a case-by-case basis. Unlike Oakland and some other jurisdictions, San Francisco also requires edibles to be in opaque packaging. "It was to get rid of the visual appeal to children," he explains.
All the edible makers say they can live with those local rules, and they praise San Francisco as a model county for medical marijuana regulation. The problem is that state law doesn't allow them to be independent businesses.
"It's against state law. There's no wholesaling allowed, and that's a big issue around edibles," Kessler said. "It's a complicated issue."
All the edibles makers in this story say they are barely getting by financially, and all have other jobs to support themselves. Jay says she's thought about giving up many times, but she's been motivated by stories they're heard from customers about the almost miraculous curative properties of their products, particularly from patients with cancer and other serious illnesses.
"I get an e-mail like this and then it's back to the kitchen," Jay said, referring to a letter from a customer who credits her with saving his life. "There are so many positive properties it has. There's really no other plant like it."