In a nondescript building less than a mile from the Strip sits one of the most unusual kitchens I’ve ever seen. To enter, I need a security escort who swipes our way through several locked doors. As I reach the lobby of the facility, my nose catches a whiff of an ingredient more pungent than the finest truffles. (When I leave, it will have attached itself to my clothes, and later my car.) And after donning a hairnet, beard net and the type of shoe covers I’d expect for a tour of an Intel lab, I enter the most spotless cooking space I’ve ever seen. It’s here that Jamie Lockwood, a graduate of the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, creates a line of cookies, chocolates, macaroons and caramels that are available at retail locations throughout the state. But neither Lockwood nor I are allowed to taste the finished products before they leave the building. For that, we would need to visit a local marijuana dispensary and possess a valid medical marijuana card.
Evergreen Organix has been supplying “edibles” to all but one of the state’s legal pot dispensaries since December. (Nevada Pure on Boulder Highway makes its own products.) I’m not experiencing the kid-in-a-candy-store awe that some might. My pothead days are so far behind me I couldn’t roll a decent joint if my life depended on it. And I’m not going to taste Lockwood’s creations, since I don’t require it medically. But I’m curious about both the culinary and medical aspects of this endeavor. What I quickly realize is that this is an industry in its infancy, struggling to find its footing in Nevada’s brave new world of medical marijuana, and still facing a steep learning curve on both the culinary and medical fronts.
The first thing Lockwood explains to me is the way THC (the stuff that gets you high) and other cannabinoids are introduced into her products. For baked goods, butter is used as the conduit. The plants are cooked in butter to extract their medicinal components. That butter is then strained and used in the recipe as if it were just plain ol’ butter. For the chocolate bars, carbon dioxide is used to remove a dark oil from the plants that is then mixed into chocolate bought from another supplier. (Organix won’t reveal the source because, according to the company’s president, Jerry Velarde, competitors have already attempted to poach their local honey supplier.) While sweets are the only edibles the company makes, it also sells THC-infused butter and oil for home cooks and coconut oil capsules for vegans.
The primary concern of the chefs seems to be getting the THC content correct. A standard chocolate bar is supposed to contain as close to 260 milligrams of the psychotropic chemical as possible, while a bag of baked goods has a target of 100 milligrams (about two to three cookies). To achieve this, infused butter and oil are sent to a lab to test their THC levels. Those results are used to fine-tune the recipes. And finished products are again sent out to a lab to test their final concentration and adjust the portion size of each package shipped to dispensaries.
Evergreen Organix’s packaging notes the strain of marijuana used and lists the concentration of its various terpenes, which impart taste as well as specific medical properties. But recipes aren’t adjusted to reflect these strains. That, coupled with the inability to sample the goods during the cooking process, makes the creators of these sweets more like compound pharmacists than chefs, packaging discrete doses of a drug into easy-to-ingest forms.
Another thing that strikes me about Organix’s line of treats is the complete lack of low-THC products. Clinical marijuana studies are sparse; however, strains that contain little or no THC but are high in the nonintoxicating cannabinoid CBD are credited with treating seizures, nausea, vomiting, anxiety, depression and other disorders in children and other patients who don’t want to get high. But at Evergreen, the focus is always on supplying a consistent, relatively high level of THC. (Nevada Pure offers CBD-only resin, but no comparable edibles.)
There are several reasons for this. The first, according to Velarde, is that CBD doesn’t absorb well in butter. But the more expensive CO2 extraction process solves that problem. The other problem, he says, is that people who buy his products want THC, and as much of it as possible. “When we first started delivering products, we had both low-THC and high-THC products. Low-THC stayed on the shelves; people didn’t want it. We’re trying to balance out costs and expenses. But part of our business model is that once we get to at least a point of sustainability, we’ll start to look at things of that [low-THC] nature. ‘What is the demand like? What can we do?’”
What can we do? That seems to be the big question for many people if edibles are ever to reach their full potential. What can regulators do to further the science of using marijuana as medicine, and letting dispensary chefs function as real chefs? What can chefs do to start treating pot as an ingredient rather than an additive? And what can businesses do to cater to those people who can benefit from marijuana but don’t want to get high? If we could begin answering those questions, maybe someday soon edibles will be taken more seriously as both food and medicine.