Colorado legalized medical marijuana in 2000. While it’s now among more than a dozen states that allow the medical use of the drug, Colorado stands alone in allowing dispensaries to act as for-profit businesses, which kicked off what’s been called a “green rush” – a huge number of medical marijuana dispensaries competing for the business of registered state residents allowed to purchase the herb.
How huge? In 2011, the number of marijuana dispensaries in Denver outnumbered Starbucks.
A visitor from a state where marijuana is still entirely illegal will wonder if she’s somehow fallen under the influence herself, as it all seems more than slightly surreal to walk down a downtown street and see street signs and billboards advertising marijuana specials: a free half gram of hash with a purchase of $75 or more; free pre-roll; free vaporizer with purchase of a $250 ounce, limit one per customer.
Most dispensaries offer “edibles”, food prepared with marijuana as an ingredient. Not everyone wants to inhale, or can. And while the downside of edibles is that digestion takes the time it takes, requiring patience, the result is apparently more satisfying – a “body high” as opposed to a “head high”.
The prototypical edible is, of course, the pot brownie. It is apparently an ethical if not a legal requirement for a writer to mention pot brownies in any article about marijuana edibles, with the next sentence saying something like “we’ve come a long way baby” and somewhere within including the word “slacker”.
The culinary facts of cannabis are these: THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, is soluble in fat and in alcohol, not water. You can eat marijuana with a spoon and it might as well be oregano.
For THC to enter the bloodstream, marijuana must be infused into butter (“cannabutter”) or oil (often coconut, sometimes olive), or into alcohol, creating a tincture. The resulting lipid or liquid can be used in recipes, most commonly in baked goods – brownies, yes, but also cookies, bagels, breads, baklava and crackers. Candy is also a common edible, particularly lollipops. But the possibilities are broader. Simply Pure offers coconut butter, apple butter, and peanut butter, and a cookbook is on the way. Ganja Gourmet(1810 S. Broadway), Denver’s first and best known medical dispensary restaurant, offers a full range of baked goods, but also savories, including breads, pizza, lasagna. Some of these are diabetic friendly.
Useful instructions on cooking with marijuana are not hard to find. But while home cooking has its rewards it is ultimately not for the lazy -- an adjective which sums up the American approach to the kitchen under normal circumstances.
Not surprisingly Colorado’s new law has birthed the marijuana prepared foods industry. For instance many dispensaries offer a beverage called Keef Cola (“The Gateway to Relief”) which debuted in 2010, a soda which comes in four strengths: Cola, Extreme, Energy and Boost, and in a variety of flavors including lemon, lime, lemonade, blue razz, cola grape, root beer, strawberry and “blue razz”. These beverages are infused with electrolytes and offer a full daily dose of vitamin C.
Not for Tourists
All of this is, of course, meant to be medically beneficial. Colorado limits medical marijuana licenses to residents suffering from debilitating medical conditions: cancer, HIV/AIDS and glaucoma, for instance. Conditions that create severe nausea, pain and muscle spasms are also eligible, if marijuana will help the situation in the opinion of a doctor. Almost all of the just over 80,000 people who are currently licensed in Colorado suffer from severe pain – some 94%, according to the state’s statistics. (Also, a 69% majority of license holders are men.)
While dispensaries tend to have names indistinguishable from medical clinics-- wellness, care, organic medicine, medicinal, medical are words in frequent usage -- and a green cross is an incredibly popular symbol, the medical mission does seem to get a little blurry when it’s possible to order marijuana infused wedding and birthday cakes, and when dispensaries offer happy hours, boast of “relaxed bar atmospheres” and “budtenders” and offer daily specials like “Sunday Funday” and “Munchie Mondays”.
Westword, Denver’s alternative newspaper, has regular medical dispensary reviews, as well as other marijuana news archived under the tag Mile Highs and Lows, although their reviewers use pot pen names -- a smart move, since marijuana is still illegal under federal law, and also because the tone of the reviews is decidedly non-medical, to wit: “The first time I had a Mountain Medicine peanut butter cup, it was so freaking delicious and potent that it changed my life for a day. Even though I don't remember the day because I was so blazed."
The thin pretense may soon be dropped, as Colorado is among several western states contemplating the legalization of recreational marijuana. (The tax revenue possibilities are enticing, as The Economist points out.) And so while for now, law-abiding travelers to Colorado must simply observe the culture of culinary cannabis, it seems inevitable that it will eventually become an option for a foodie's Denver itinerary.