Shortly after the state of Washington legalized recreational marijuana, an Eater editor was in Seattle for a wedding and decided to hit up a dispensary. “We thought it would be a fun, touristy thing to do,” she says. After purchasing a cookie from a reputable edibles company, she and her partner headed back to their Airbnb to partake, following the package’s instructions and each consuming half.
“It tasted fine — not great, but fine. We were watching Netflix and just enjoying being high, and then it just got really bad. I couldn’t stop twitching — it was an extremely intense and unpleasant body high. Our perception of time was warped in a way I had not experienced with any previous marijuana use. Eventually we were able to fall asleep, and when we woke up in the morning we felt fine — but we looked at our phones and saw that independently we both had Googled ‘how to stop being high.’”
“It was a reaction so unlike any I’ve ever had to a marijuana product before,” she says, “that it made me think maybe I didn’t really understand weed at all, and since then I’ve mostly avoided it.”
While unpleasant, this kind of experience is hardly rare. Anyone who’s dabbled in recreational drug use likely has at least one pot brownie anecdote: a high school baking project concocted while your parents were out of town, perhaps, that may have ended in being curled up in the fetal position questioning your own reality — or, to a different end, a foul-tasting and ineffective end product that was a total waste of a dimebag.
But with recreational weed now legal in eight states (California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada approved it last Election Day, though they haven’t yet begun sales to recreational users), not to mention medical marijuana permitted in more than half of U.S. states, a whole new crop of users are experimenting with edibles. (Ed. note: Nevada began recreational marijuana sales in July 2017; California followed suit in January 2018.)
And thanks to legal cannabis industry innovators, new categories of products intended to drastically improve the user experience have emerged: Products touting precise “micro-dosing” and rapid-delivery technology help prevent inexperienced users from eating too much and becoming completely overwhelmed, and carefully concocted recipes from reputable chefs ensure that the products taste just as good as they work.
The Trouble With Dosing
Tourists and inexperienced cannabis users often opt for edibles because they’re more discreet than smoking and require no special equipment or know-how to consume — but many, whether they’re new to weed or just new to eating it, find themselves overwhelmed by the visceral high that just a few bites of a brownie, cookie, or chocolate bar can induce.
In 2013, Colorado became the first state to legalize pot for recreational use. According to a 2014 federal government-commissioned report on the impact of marijuana legalization on the state of Colorado, from 2011 to 2013 the state saw a 57 percent increase in emergency room visits related to marijuana. One doctor quoted in the report stated, “...if they’re coming in related to marijuana, it’s largely related to edibles.”
Even for reasonably experienced smokers, edibles can pack an unexpected punch. When cannabis is eaten rather than smoked or vaped, THC (the compound that gets you high) is transformed by the liver into a different, more potent substance. Edibles also take much longer to kick in — sometimes as long as two hours, which often leads users to think that it’s not working and to eat more — and the effects are also much longer-lasting, as New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd famously knows all too well.
Made by BotanicaSeattle, a Washington-based company that also hawks its products in Oregon, Spot brownie or cookie bites and chocolate squares come packaged in a slickly designed resealable pouch that broadcasts their low dosage: 5mg of THC per serving, which is half the 10mg serving size typically recommended for new edibles users. (Washington law limits recreational marijuana edibles to no more than 10mg per serving, while Colorado requires edibles to be clearly labeled in 10mg increments.)
“Five milligrams felt like the right number to me,” says company founder Tim Moxey, a UK-born entrepreneur who’s now one of the top edibles producers in Washington. “I couldn't give my mom 10 milligrams and feel good about it.”
The company claims its products are triple-tested to ensure accurate dosing, and Moxey says it’s all about trust: “If you're going to give a product to [a new edibles user], what you don't want to do is make it too strong and burn them, because you’ll never get them back.” According to research published by the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2015, only 17 percent of edibles have their THC levels accurately labeled.
Many dispensaries say edibles make up anywhere from 25 to 60 percent of their sales, making it a multi-billion dollar industry, and the selection of products is vast — yes, there are brownies and cookies, but there are also cannabis infused-protein powders, peanut butter, sodas, and, in the case of a new edibles company called 1906, handmade truffles that look like they came from a high-end chocolate boutique.
Boulder, Colorado-based 1906 is the brainchild of former Wall Street banker Peter Barsoom. (Named for the year the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed, requiring cannabis products to be labeled as poison, the company’s tagline is “It took more than a century for the world to return to its senses.”) The chocolates tout “rapid delivery technology” that delivers results in 15 to 20 minutes, rather than an hour or two.
Barsoom says his products are aimed at “responsible, health-conscious adults who want to indulge but can’t afford to lose their mind for six hours.” The company utilizes a pharmaceutical technique called lipid microencapsulation: Basically, a lipid coating allows the THC to bypass the stomach and get into the small intestine faster, where it’s more rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream.
Barsoom compares the effects of one 1906 chocolate to having one glass of wine: “Just like we can drink alcohol responsibly without getting totally blasted, we can consume cannabis without losing control,” he says.
Chefs Get High
Though expanding at a breakneck speed, the edibles market is still largely dominated by stuff like Cheeba Chews (a famously strong candy that tastes like a Tootsie Roll, except worse) and generic-tasting cookies or questionably-flavored chocolate bars — peach? Raspberry habanero? — that would never see the light of day except for the fact they’re loaded with THC.
But as the stigma surrounding pot use begins to fade thanks to legalization and medical breakthroughs, some established names from the culinary world have turned their attention to weed — and for discerning cannabis users who want their edibles to be worth savoring for the taste as much as for the high, that’s excellent news.
Acclaimed Chicago pastry chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author Mindy Segal debuted a namesake brand of edibles last year. Segal, who calls herself “very pro-marijuana,” says she was approached by one of Chicago’s biggest cannabis cultivators, Cresco Labs, about partnering with them, and for her it was an easy decision. “I knew that I wanted to be a part of this industry,” she says. “I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to make people happy, and make a tasty product from a chef's perspective.”
Products sold at Illinois dispensaries cannot be perishable, meaning the kinds of baked goods you’d find at Segal’s Chicago restaurant and bakery were out of the question. Instead, the Mindy’s Edibles line includes shelf-stable items like caramels in peanut butter and jelly or creamsicle flavors, dark chocolate smoked almond brittle, and vanilla bourbon hard candies (“We did sucking candy because it’s sublingual and gets into your system faster,” she explains). By using cannabis oils free of terpenes, the compounds that give weed its pungent aroma, the products are largely devoid of any cannabis flavor or smell.
Segal and Cresco have big plans for the line: Mindy’s Edibles are currently sold in dispensaries across Illinois (where cannabis is currently only legal for medical use), but the company intends to expand its reach into five additional states in the near future, plus they’ve got several new products in the works, including strain-specific and CBD-only items. “A lot of it is just talking to patients and figuring out what they want, and then coming up with a way to elevate it through the eyes of a chef,” Segal says.
A chef of Segal’s caliber getting into the edibles industry has the potential to lure in a new demographic: A weed world icon like Snoop Dogg having a line of cannabis chocolates is one thing, but a James Beard Award-winning chef hawking weed products is bound to pique the interest of a few marijuana skeptics.
Segal’s not the first pastry chef to dip her toe into the legal cannabis industry, either: One of Washington State’s most popular edibles brands, Goodship Company, is the brainchild of Jody Hall, who’s better known as the founder of a Seattle bakery called Cupcake Royale that now has six locations. Goodship’s line includes items such as fair-trade dark chocolate bars infused with third wave coffee beans. As Goodship writes on its website, “The best marijuana edibles are more than just delivery mechanisms.”
The Future of Edibles
Legal marijuana sales in North America totaled $6.7 billion last year and are expected to surge to $20 billion by 2021, according to a report by Arcview Market Research. (To put that in perspective, Arcview says the only consumer industries to match that kind of insane compounding annual growth have been the cable TV industry in the ‘90s and broadband internet in the 2000s.)
More than half of Americans say they support legalizing pot, but with Republicans in control of all three branches of government (and a newly appointed attorney general who’s staunchly anti-pot), many worry that federal legalization is a long ways off. Still, “It’s financially a really great opportunity for states, and we’re controlling a substance that really should not be on Schedule 1,” says Segal, pointing out that the DEA puts weed in the same category as dangerous drugs like heroin.
Snacking on THC-laced chocolates may still be far from mainstream, but along with modern, minimal packaging that’s devoid of pot leaves and bloodshot-eyed cartoon characters and high-end dispensaries that feel more like luxury boutiques than head shops, better-tasting edibles offering a kinder, gentler experience are helping to further de-stigmatize a substance that’s shown to be exponentially less harmful than alcohol or tobacco.
“One of the tougher things for me to do is to come out and say, ‘I use marijuana,” Botanica Seattle founder Tim Moxey admits. “It’s very hard to say that when you’ve been conditioned not to, and to wonder what people will think about you. But if I can’t say I enjoy marijuana when I run a marijuana company, then we’re all a bit screwed, aren’t we?”