Elise McDonough is a cannabis enthusiast who loves to cook, so she morphed her job as production director for High Times Magazine into an entirely new gig: edibles editor. The job finds her writing a monthly recipe column, taste-testing new products on the market and profiling budding culinary ganja-preneurs.
McDonough has authored two books on how to eat and get stoned — The Official High Times Cannabis Cookbook and Marijuana for Everybody, both of which have become necessary reading for contemporary ingesters. She's also an active organizer and judge for the multiple Cannabis Cups held all over the world.
The edibles scene is changing fast. With legalization already in place in Washington and Colorado — and slated for the 2016 ballot in California — getting high has never been tastier. In addition to the tried-and-true brownies, cookies and Rice Krispies treats, McDonough is seeing a wide variety of new, sophisticated products including drinks, savory dishes and high-end, precisely dosed chocolates. Many of these companies are based in Southern California, making everything from THC-laced beef jerky to hash-infused fruit leathers to items crafted for vegan, paleo and raw diets.
We called McDonough at her office in Santa Cruz to talk shop about the edibles business and how L.A. is helping to further it.
What were edibles like when you first started writing about them?
I started focusing on the edibles industry when we launched side Cannabis Cups [outside of the original in Amsterdam] around five years ago, and we would have entries in the edible competition that were presented as complete mysteries, like chocolate-covered bananas wrapped in plastic with no allergy warnings. Since then, in California at least, you’ve seen it evolve out of something entirely homemade, in a home kitchen, to now having people coming in with serious investment dollars who can afford to build food manufacturing facilities that can be on par with any other food company. Before, it was cannabis people making food. Now you have food people getting interested in cannabis, and they’re bringing more knowledge of food science. Everyone’s watching and waiting for legalization in 2016 to take over and poising themselves as leaders in the market.
Why do you think the brownie has for so long been the typical vessel for eating weed?
It goes back to history. You have The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, which had a recipe for brownies, so Toklas cannabis brownies burst onto the pop culture scene in the ‘50s, and it stuck in people’s minds. I think a lot of why brownies became popular is you can make them with a prepackaged mix, and the chocolate mix can effectively cover up the taste. It got stuck in people’s minds that making weed brownies is just what you do, and that continues into the medical marijuana area, where you see a lot of brownies and Rice Krispies treats.
How did you start cooking different, marijuana-infused things?
Once you infuse the THC into butter or oil, you can put it in anything that calls for butter or oil. There’s no need to limit yourself. But there’s a lot of trial and error. If you're experimenting at home, the best way is to have consistent access to the same kind of weed, which is hard in a black-market situation. When I was working under those circumstances, I really had to try hard not to overdose. You have to put it on toast or something and work your way up from there. Now, with access to lab testing, you really can dial it in.
Is it way more scientific now? What about for the average home cannabis cook?
For people who want to cook at home who have access to medical marijuana dispensaries, you can buy your own butter, then you know the THC content of the butter and look at your recipes, figure out how much butter you want to have and how much THC would be in each serving. I just finished a big project called Ultimate Cannabis Experiment. We put the same amount of weed into clarified butter using four different methods, sent it to two different labs and put the results up online with how-to videos. When you have that kind of information, then you can really be much more efficient with how you’re using your cannabis.
When did you first notice food people entering the edibles industry?
[The owner of] Bhang Chocolates out of Oakland was the first person I met, and he was the first to become the dominant chocolate brand in every medical marijuana state. The owner is a master chocolatier who had a successful small chocolate company and branched out and started adding cannabis to it around 2010. He came from a professional food environment, and now you see a lot of other people jumping in. Jodie Hall from Cupcakes Royale, the beloved cupcake company in Seattle, had early marketing experience at Starbucks and is now jumping into cannabis with her offshoot the Goodship, which makes cookies and chocolate.
What are some of the other interesting new products out there?
You're seeing a lot of innovation being driven by those smaller companies. People like Lifted in Santa Cruz, who were the first people I saw making raw, vegan, superfood-type edibles. I’ve seen a lot of that over the last two years, especially being driven by people being more health-conscious in general. You might have an issue that an improved diet can help. You’re seeing more women starting to use marijuana for the first time. Women are the huge drivers seeking healthier options. When women find out there’s a certain kind of chocolate that can help their PMS, you better believe they’ll try it.
Is there particularly an interesting edible scene in L.A.? Like, more than other places?
There's certainly a lot happening in Southern California with edibles, including an incredibly diverse scene featuring all different types of infused food. I've recently spoken with entrepreneurs in the L.A. metro area working on items like cannabis pizza sauce, hash-infused fruit leathers and medicated candied bacon. Interesting L.A.-area edibles makers include Green Gold Baking Company, Fruit Slabs and Canapa Pizza Sauce. L.A. is unique because of the concentration of health-conscious consumers. I would say that producers in SoCal are at the forefront of treating cannabis-infused foods as wellness products rather than something solely intended for inebriation.
What role do you think edibles will have in introducing new audiences to marijuana?
As cannabis goes legal, I think edibles will eventually eclipse smoking. Consuming it orally is healthier for your lungs than inhaling it, and it’s more discreet. There will be a lot of people who will never smoke weed and will only eat it. One older woman, Marla Molly Poiset, is a classically trained French pastry chef who wanted to create a product that would appeal to her friends who are new to cannabis and who were cautious about it. She makes these low-dose truffles that melt in your mouth. This is how I want to represent the movement, because how can you be threatened by a beautiful truffle? It’s something so elegant and sophisticated that it puts a new face on the industry. I’ve seen things like soluble breath strips and dissolvable gummies designed for new audiences, too. That’s the most fascinating thing about it — there's nothing you can’t make with marijuana in it. I saw weed-infused toothpicks once, too.
So what’s the next step for us in California?
Everyone’s waiting to see what the language is going to be on the next ballot initiative so they can figure out how to best position themselves in California. Last year in Colorado, cannabis edibles were 50 percent of total sales [nationwide], and with Colorado being a much smaller state than California, we’re talking about a billion-dollar industry that’s poised to explode.
The final frontier I think will be cannabis dining and how do you deal with cannabis dinner parties that are being increasingly popular. That’s not really permitted anywhere; it’s not even legal in Colorado, because you can’t serve it in public, only a private-party setting. A lot of people are looking at that in California. Are there going to be cannabis events? What about cannabis tourism? I think that’s the final frontier.