Published 8:39 PM EDT Sep 17, 2018
PORTLAND, Ore.—The first time Holly Hukill tried to make cannabis-infused desserts it was, in her own words, “a complete disaster.”
“I burned the butter,” said Hukill, the product development director at Serra, a Portland-based weed dispensary. “And the cookies were just awful.”
Making your own edibles, Hukill explained, requires a lot of trial and error. Early on in her cannabis-cooking career, there were times she got too stoned to drive.
“Sampling so many iterations of the same recipe, that is definitely a hazard of the job” she said with a laugh.
Now that she’s an expert, Hukill and Serra want to help others enjoy the benefits of recreational marijuana use. Over the weekend, Hukill helped teach “Sugar High,” a cannabis cooking class at Feast, a four-day food annual festival in Portland known for attracting James Beard Award winners. The class for 45 people quickly sold out.
“Frankly, there’s been a lot of demand for a class like this,” said Feast co-founder Mike Thelin. “For us, while we’re not necessarily advocates for it, we are advocates for responsible use.”
Long considered a closeted activity, cooking with cannabis isn’t just for the super stoner anymore. As legalized marijuana use—for both medicinal and recreational purposes—continues to gain support across the country, home cooks are starting to incorporate cannabis into everyday meals. Yes, some people just want to get buzzed. But others want to alleviate chronic pain, lessen anxiety and sleep better. And they want to do it without smoking.
That’s why Jon Basil, 32, showed up Saturday.
Basil traveled from Chicago to attend Feast, and signed up for the Sugar High class because he’s “just fascinated by the whole phenomenon of edibles,” he said. He’s never cooked with cannabis before, but figured if he came to Portland, a city known for pot, he might be able to pick up a few pointers. A carpenter by trade, Basil has dealt with carpel tunnel problems in both hands for the last few years.
“It used to be that if I texted for more than two minutes, both my hands would go numb,” he said.
Basil had surgery last July, but still deals with pain. He shunned prescription opioids after the surgery, leery of side effects and potential addiction issues. Instead, he finds relief smoking weed. But for him, it goes deeper than just a physical consolation.
Six years ago, Basil said, his life fell apart—he lost his job and his home, and had to go on bipolar medication. But those pills “made me feel like a zombie,” Basil said. That’s when he started asking friends about the plant. He quit the pills and self-medicated with marijuana. He said it calmed his mind, and helped him return to normal.
“In six years of using cannabis,” he said, “I’ve completely rebuilt my life.”
As Hukill demonstrated how to make the perfect pot brownie Saturday afternoon, Basil leaned forward in his seat, and asked if cannabis could be infused into foods other than desserts. Before Hukill could answer, other attendees—many of them Portland residents who have played with cannabis in their own kitchens— piped up. Toss Brussels sprouts in cannabis-infused butter, one suggested. Find an online recipe for cannabis-infused simple syrup, said another, and have fun mixing cocktails.
Support for legalized marijuana has increased exponentially over the last couple decades. According to the Pew Research Center, 61 percent of Americans now support legalization, compared to just 31 percent in 2000. In the West, weed is a way of life: Recreational use is legal in Washington, Oregon, California, Colorado, Nevada and Alaska. And as legalization spreads to other states—it’s on the ballot in Michigan this November—many expect other entrepreneurs to lean on the example set by innovative Westerners.
More: Pot smokers are setting aside their joints in favor of edibles, pills and extracts
Much like how the West Coast found itself on the cutting edge of coffee, craft beer, wine and plant-based cooking, Portland food writer Martha Holmberg said she won’t be surprised if the region revolutionizes the way cannabis is incorporated in the food and drink industry. She wonders, too, “will the novelty wear off, and will we eventually go back to just sweets?”
Regardless, she points to the similarities in farmer’s market shopping and cannabis purchase. “Everyone is an educated consumer now — and people want clean, green products,” she said.
Edibles, not "regrettables"
Portland chefs aren’t the only ones getting high in the kitchen.
Seven years ago, when Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize recreational use, Danny Schaefer saw a business opportunity. Schaefer wasn’t interested in growing or distributing cannabis, but he knew visitors would flock to Colorado to openly participate in a drug culture long forced underground. So he founded My 420 Tours, which bills itself as “the original Colorado cannabis tour.” They offer all-inclusive vacations that include pot-friendly hotels, growhouse tours, cannabis massages, and sushi and joint rolling classes.
Those cooking classes keep Patrick Bailey, head chef of My 420 Tours, plenty busy. Bailey teaches three class a week on average, with private cooking classes—where you can create your own cannabis-heavy meal—sprinkled in between. Sure, he can make pot brownies—but he’s more excited about complicated dishes like sushi and smoked meat.
“When I cook, it’s food-forward, not weed-forward,” said Bailey, a third generation culinary professional. “If I make you barbecue ribs you probably won’t taste the plant, but my goal is always to relax you with cannabis on the back end.”
Schafer estimates that 420 Tours create 80-90 “experiences” serving 4,000-5,000 customers per month. Cannabis is a major draw all over the city; Schaefer said many in the industry joke that while California had the gold rush, Colorado is known for its green rush.
“A lot of our guests want to enjoy weed without smoking, and they want to do it in a modern, regulated way,” Schaefer said. “What we realized is that we could hire chefs to create these cool culinary dishes that would be fun but also allow us to educate people on something they could do at home.”
My 420 Tours aims to give visitors the tools to ensure “that edibles don’t become regrettables,” Schaefer said.
More: 'Budtenders,' edibles chefs among fastest-growing jobs in legal marijuana industry
States that have legalized recreational use, including Colorado and California, have reported in recent years an uptick in marijuana-related emergency room visits, because inexperienced users often over indulge. In Colorado, for example, the state recommended dosage is 10 milligrams of THC. But for Schaefer, an experienced user, “that is way too potent for me.”
When he teaches, Bailey tries to give students a flexible recipe.
“Every person is different, so I give them a medium to work from, give them all the math and science behind it,” he said. “I’m not trying to get them pounded real quick—I want to show them how to spread it out.”
States are now trying to monitor intake, too. California has started cracking down on edible packaging and dosage numbers, which has put smaller—and sometimes more creative—mom and pop shops out of business.
Refusing to give into shame of stigma
During Saturday's class, Charley Wheelock, the chocolate maker who taught Sugar High with Hukill, gave students a brief history of chocolate before diving deep into his passion for infused goodies. He initially got some flak from other chocolate makers when he said he wanted to partner with Serra. But pot culture is here for the long-term and he’s determined that his kitchen be at the forefront of that movement.
“It’s so exciting to have the opportunity to present edible marijuana to the public that’s thoughtfully dose and finely flavored,” he told the class Saturday. “But we’re not trying to mess up someone’s weekend—we want this to be like having a glass of wine, not four tequila shots.”
More: Medical marijuana used pot's emotional connection to spread nationally
Hukill later demonstrated a recipe that yielded 16 brownies, each containing 2.8 milligrams of THC, which she likened to two glasses of wine.
Hukill called 2.8 milligrams “perfect for a beginner,” adding that marijuana edibles are not meant to be consumed en masse. In other words, when you ingest edibles and get the munchies, reach for something else. Another tip: Remember that cannabis-infused foods take longer to get into your system compared to smoking or vaping. Give time for the high to hit.
Basil, the Chicagoan who deals with carpel tunnel, knows there’s still a stigma attached to using cannabis. But he’s not about to let anyone shame him for taking care of himself.
“It’s crazy to me that you can go to a bar, get obliterated, drive your car down the street, kill someone and no one is trying to outlaw alcohol,” he said. “For so long I was told marijuana was a gateway drug. But it’s not. This is a flower that could help a lot of people.”
There was no one getting high during Saturday’s class, though. Oregon law prohibits marijuana from being consumed in a public space.