Gone are the days of the pot brownie. Well, maybe not gone, but rather overlooked or evolved from. With increased legalization of marijuana and the rising popularity of cannabis edibles, the variety of desserts, baked goods, candies, beverages, gum, mints and the ilk have so overshadowed the classic pot brownie that someday it could be relegated to a questionable old recipe akin to ham-and-Jell-O salads from a 1950s community cookbook.
From 2015 to 2018, cannabis edibles have had a 300 percent increase in sales, according to David Kellman of MJM Strategy, a California-based cannabis marketing agency. Kellmen attributed the growth mainly to health factors concerning marijuana consumption and the shifting demographics of the consumer. The biggest cannabis market, he said, is “reactivated users” who used marijuana in teen and young adult years and have since returned to the practice due to increased legalization and are between the ages of 30 and 35. A large percentage of that market is comprised of women. “The edibles market is aligning with current food and health trends,” he said, and commercial edible products vary from low-calorie and low-carb to vegan and gluten-free.
Inhaling marijuana abides by those restrictions, but Kellman says that is where the edible portion of the legal weed market is popular: these is no inhalation of smoke with edibles, and public health concerns are assuaged by edibles because there is no smoke emitted from edible consumption. In places where smoking is illegal (public parks, concerts or movie theaters) edible cannabis permits consumption with disturbing others or violating rules.
Concerns about the traditionally strong smell that smoking marijuana offers is another reason this rising demographic turns to edibles. The lack of lingering odor makes edibles a safer, inconspicuous option for those who work in corporate or public-facing jobs.
“In the past, weed was stigmatized and also enforced based on the smell,” said Tim, a Troy-based marijuana user who has been consuming cannabis through smoking, ingesting and vaping for roughly a decade. He prefers to smoke and roll his own joints as it is, “more of a ritual that way,” he said. When he travels, he chooses vapor cartridges or edibles.
“The edibles I’m still trying to figure out. When it hits you, it hits you hard,” he said. At home, he takes cut marijuana leaves or dried plant trimmings (usually older marijuana that he uses for rolling that has become stale) and pulverizes it in a coffee grinder to simmer for several hours in butter. He will use it as a raw product or incorporate it into baked goods and in baking.
“Commercial edibles seem a lot stronger,” he said, and Kim, from Cohoes, agrees. She smokes weed multiple times a day but only ingests edibles occasionally. “They make me sleepy,” she said, agreeing with Tim that choosing an edible over a smoking product creates a high that seems more potent, has a delayed effect and tends to produce a longer-lasting high.
“Edibles and smoking are night and day. They process in your body completely different,” Kellman said. The science backs that, with the key different being how the psychotropic cannabinoid in marijuana known as tetrahydrocannabinol (commonly called THC) is metabolized in the body when inhaled or ingested.
With smoking, THC goes into the lungs first and then is directed to the brain, creating a faster high that is further metabolized in the liver. Eating cannabis allows THC to break down in what is called “first pass” metabolism, according to industry reports. The high is delayed because it takes longer for THC to reach the brain.
However, the edible high is prolonged because of how it is metabolized. While there are dozens of cannabinoids that are present in various strains of cannabis, the most prominent is Delta-9-THC. THC is an oil-soluble compound, but when cannabis is smoked, is immediately hits the brain and attaches to receptors that create the feeling of being high. By the time Delta-9-THC (and other cannabinoid variants) reach the liver for second-pass metabolization, its potency is reduced.
When THC is in the liver, it is processed into a metabolite called 11-hydroxy-THC. This compound is not naturally occuring in cannabis but is a resulting factor of how cannabis is metabolized in the body. While research is still new and limited on 11-hydroxy-THC (one study from the 1970s is widely referenced), the common theory is that because Delta-9-THC is “diluted” in the brain first through edibles and travels directly to the GI tract and liver, there is more THC to be processed and bound to fats in the bloodstream, resulting in a high that is slowly released from the liver keeping the user more continuously high.
(Do you need to smoke after that explanation? Us too.)
Kim’s claim that cannabis edibles give her a “body high” are logical once understanding how THC works in the body. While most edibles she experienced were made by friends (she recalled a pasta salad with pot-laced pesto and quite tasty and memorable), a trip to Colorado and visits to legal dispensaries was like being, “kids in a weed candy store. I had some of the best chocolate I’ve had in my life.” The benefit of commercial edibles is that dosage information of THC is clearly indicated, making it easier to self-regulate a high.
Kellman suggested starting with a low dose of five milligrams for first-time edible users to understand how edibles make each person feel. He also said it is important to account for, “set and setting,” which include being in a trusted environment and keeping expectations to how the high will affect the user limited and open. Long-time smokers or vaping aficionados can be surprised by how strong and different the high from edibles can be.
Chefs and beverage professionals are incorporating cannabis into their practices. A organic volatile compounds called terpenes and flavonoids are the agents responsible for smell and taste of plants, including cannabis. Sommeliers and Cicerones (wine and beer experts, respectively) are well-versed in how these compounds pair well with other items, said Kellman, and cannabis items paired with alcohol products are gaining ground in states where marijuana use is legalized.
Ric Orlando, the executive chef at New World Bistro Bar in Albany, equated the vegetal flavor from marijuana to shiso leaves, calling it an “untapped cooking herb.” He remained dubious on the likelihood that the regulation and taxation on marijuana will ever make it available to restaurants on a regular basis, but he made the analogy of cooking with weed to cooking with alcohol. “You don’t get drunk on Steak Diane,” a dish highly reliant on copious use of cognac, he said.
Self-control is also important with edibles, Orlando said. Just as people are inclined to overindulged on virgin candy or cookies, they can do the same with sweet cannabis edibles, ultimately ingesting too much THC. A post on the local food blog BurntMyFingers.com described some of the edible cannabis products available at a recent food trade show, among them single-serving chocolate bars, cookies and caramels ranging from 40 milligrams to 100 milligrams. (That’s eight to 20 times the recommended first dosage by Kellman.)
Kim said her experience in states where weed was legal makes her optimistic for what it could do for New York. Like the craft beer boom promoted by Governor Andrew Cuomo and the Department of Agriculture, experimenting with different marijuana products and forms “could be like talking to a local brewer,” she said.
“The crossover is already happening,” between marijuana and alcohol, said Kellman. He pointed to the recent investment by Constellation Brands (the parent company of Corona, Modelo, Black Box Wines and Svedka vodka) into Canopy Growth, a publicly traded cannabis company listed on the ticker as WEED. Constellation is the first Fortune 500 company and first major alcohol brand to invest in marijuana (according to reports by Forbes) and has claimed 10 percent of ownership with its investment, with an option to buy 10 percent more. By the third financial quarter of this year, Constellation will have invest $191 million dollars into Canopy Growth.
Elsewhere, booze-related enterprises are also experimenting with the incorporation of cannabis. Hops (for beer) and cannabis are both nightshades and members of the same genetic family, and hop growers have been working to hybridize the two for several years. Most notably, the Willamette Valley hop growers (in the Pacific Northwest) have incorporated cannabis into the Cascade variety of hops. The combination of alcohol with cannabis has yet to be regulated for commercial sale.
While there is no commercial beer-bud product available on the legal cannabis market yet, that isn’t to say it could not happen in the future. Progress in cannabis products creates greater variety in how users get their weed fix, but it is still a slow-moving, couch-locked, ceiling-staring beast. Like most other products, be it alcohol, medications or food, the desired effect informs product selection. Go ahead and make a batch of pot brownies if the tannic, grassy flavor of weed makes your chocolate more tempting. We still have to wait until Little Debbie’s cosmic brownies really get us high.
Last names have been omitted to maintain the subjects’ privacy.
Deanna Fox is a freelance food and agriculture journalist. @DeannaNFox www.foxonfood.com