Eat your green
Fledgling entrepreneurs are trying to get started in the edible marijuana business in advance of next summer's promised legalization. As Corey Mintz reports, they have all the stresses of any other food business, as well as other, more unique concerns
Buying and selling marijuana in Canada is currently a very grey market – almost legal but with a shrug emoji attached. Along this legally nebulous frontier, no one has more of an uphill battle than the makers and distributors of edible products.
Caught between the fearful underground economy of yesterday and the optimistic, free-market opportunity of tomorrow, bakers and chefs (and marketers and investors) are currently toiling to develop delicious marijuana-infused foods. Their goal is to do away with the classic pot brownie – that gooey, Cheech and Chong era relic that more often than not fails to mask the flavour of the drug – and build a viable business selling food that makes you high.
Any food business struggles to be noticed in a competitive market and to keep labour and ingredient costs low while growing at a scalable pace. Edible-marijuana entrepreneurs also face some major challenges that most food businesses don't, such as controlling the dose of the drug they're administering; working with a product many people don't like the taste of; and coping with the unpredictability of the law.
These are real cooks in real kitchens, people who know that marijuana is fat-soluble and has to be heated to activate the THC. They're making bars of caramelized white chocolate with smoked sea salt, or pretzel and marshmallow blondies, and infusing marijuana into poutine gravy and Jamaican patties (both beef and vegan), as well as hot sauce and salad dressing.
And, since this it's no longer the summer of '69, they're putting effort into social media and design.
Take Montreal company EP Infusions, run by a former construction worker turned amateur craft brewer who prefers not to use his name, since the Quebec marijuana business is still more black market than grey.
His bars are made with Belcolade and Cacao Barry chocolate, and come beautifully wrapped in ornate Japanese paper with the batch number written by hand. The initial inspiration was a friend's challenge to produce something good from some dried, unsellable buds, and he certainly has: The bars have the lustre and snap of properly made confections and come in combinations such as dark chocolate with hazelnut pralines, cookies and cream and white chocolate with matsu matcha tea.
They are also as much about science as style, costing $10 to $20 and offering either 100 or 200 mg of THC, the key psychoactive component of marijuana. That specificity is appealing, since nothing is more important when ingesting edibles than controlling the dosage of cannabinoids.
Imagine being poured a glass of wine, being told it has notes of cherry, leather and oak. But, your host cautions, it has the alcoholic potency of anything from zero to five glasses, all or none of which might hit you for about half an hour. That's a metaphor for the unpredictability of cooking with marijuana, which is one of its classic problems.
Bring up edibles at any party and someone will tell you a story about a bad trip, such as this one: I once ate half of a gummy and found myself walking along the side of a highway in the suburbs of Austin, Tex., questioning every life choice I'd ever made.
The reason this happens so frequently is because the effects of ingesting marijuana take longer to feel than those from smoking. The high often doesn't hit for at least 30 minutes, and it tends to last longer, too.
It's also hard to control or estimate the potency of a product that isn't made in monitored facilities. Still, it is possible with lab testing to quantify the level of cannabinoids in an edible, and many entrepreneurs aim to do so.
Each EP Infusions bar is labelled in a minimalist font such as Poiret One or Helvetica, identifying the strain of marijuana and THC content of the bar in milligrams. Each square of each bar contains five mg of THC.
To be that exact, EP's chocolate maker uses a product called distillate. It's made by extracting the essential oils of the marijuana plant using butane oil as a solvent, which is purged through a vacuum oven, leaving a resin that is further refined.
Through experimentation that he likens to brewing, EP's chocolate maker has found that his customers enjoy a ratio of 10 parts THC, which generally relaxes the brain, to one part of another cannabinoid called CBD, which generally relaxes the body.
The distillation process serves another of the chocolate maker's aims, which is to strip out all marijuana flavour and aroma compounds. This has worked for the dark chocolate bar with hazelnuts, which has no perceptible trace of marijuana scent or taste.
The white chocolate bars, however, do smell like a knapsack you wouldn't try to take through airport security, although that may be a good thing.
Similar to sugary coolers that don't taste like vodka, weed candy that doesn't taste like weed provides an easy way to overconsume.
THC sauces are often served on the side at the High Society Supper Club a series of multicourse private dinner events in Hamilton and Toronto. Host Reena Rampersad wants guests to feel in control of how much or how little they'd like to use.
But she's not one to mask the flavour of marijuana, which in baked goods often comes across as an unmistakable musk that makes coconut-scented sunscreen seem subtle. It's sort of like cilantro, in that most people love it or hate it, and Rampersad is one of the former.
"It's a wonderful flavour when you bring it out with certain things. It goes well with bitter, salty, savoury," says Rampersad, who was a social worker in Detroit for 10 years before moving to Hamilton. "It's a matter of experimenting. Marijuana is very complex."
She has a hard time naming a food that doesn't, in her opinion, pair well with marijuana, eventually counting a lemon cream base, intended for dessert, as unpleasing.
"We make an effort to pair the flavour profiles of the cannabis with what we're cooking," says Rampersad, who considers a heady hot sauce made with ghost, habanero, scorpion and scotch bonnet chillies as a particular success. Another is her Pineapple Express wontons, which have a filling of pineapple, mango and cilantro made with coconut oil that's been infused with a strain of the plant known as Pineapple Kush.
Lida-Tuy Dinh of Toronto edibles company The Baker's Shop says her clientele is evenly divided between those who like and dislike the taste. "Some people like the chocolate and mint combo. It's a traditional combo," Dinh says. "But some people hate it."
Dinh thinks that cannabis clashes with bitter flavours but pairs well with earthy ones, and lists peaches, ginger, turmeric, cinnamon and orange zest among her favourites. She also cares about originality.
"Things like a chocolate-chip cookie or a brownie have been done for about a hundred years," she says. "But if you can take something like a chocolate-chip cookie that's familiar, and add maybe some curry, or turmeric or chai tea spice, and then pair that with cannabis, I think the wow factor goes up."
Edibles aren't easy to get, even though a walk through any Toronto neighbourhood shows that there are more than few entrepreneurs willing to run grey-market dope stores (or dispensaries, as they're now meant to be called).
In 2015, in advance of Canada's federal election and the expectation of eventual legalization, such dispensaries multiplied quickly overnight. Many disappeared in Toronto after May, 2016, when local police executed a series of raids as part of Project: Claudia.
Plenty of stores have since reopened, but one persistent rumour is that law enforcement is more concerned about edibles than buds. "NO EDIBLES FOR SALE" signs have since popped up in windows like a talisman to ward off the cops.
So for now, edibles are mainly available in Toronto at pop-up private events. Many of these are organized by Lisa Campbell, who holds events with names including Green Market, Nuit Verte and Mercado Libre.
"We're showing the city what responsible industry looks like," says Campbell, who says her events are open to adults only. "I think that between now and when Parliament reconvenes, and when they pass the Cannabis Act and iron out the details, now is our chance to show what legalization could look like."
As the federal government's July, 2018, legalization deadline quickly approaches, it's still unclear what legislation will look like. If weed is medicine, it needs to meet drug-testing standards. If it is food, it must be held to the same hygiene regulation as any bakery or restaurant – meaning health inspectors showing up unannounced to make sure that every fridge has a thermometer, flour is stored no less than six inches off the ground and produce is never rinsed in the employee handwashing sink.
If it's an intoxicant, those are also regulated: All Ontario wine, beer and liquor producers must have their products regularly tested by the LCBO.
Since it's currently illegal to sell these products, any care currently taken to make them is self-regulated, and as with any business, some proprietors care and some don't. At the more mercenary places, indifferent staff don't seem aware of retail concepts such as product knowledge or repeat clients, and an inquisitive customer may as well be asking about the breed of pork in the bacon bits at a hot-dog stand.
But dispensaries truly devoted to medical marijuana generally employ staff who will gladly talk customers through the cannabinoid content and expected result of each product.
"We care about testing. We care about consumer safety," Campbell says of herself and the vendors she invites to her events. That said, she's nervous, as she's heard rumours of a nationwide crackdown this fall.
"These are the final days of fun."
For the moment, fun is about all that's being generated.
None of these businesses is producing a sizable profit yet – the focus now is are developing products, brands and a consumer base, in advance of the possibility of operating legally.
"We've all been doing it as a hobby. But we've been building an industry," Rampersad says. "When they allow us to move forward, to employ people, to open up shop and apply for licenses, we're all ready. We've been doing it for fun. And we're ready to do it for real."