The rise of gourmet ganja
The change in US cannabis laws has led to a growing market in food laced with the drug. So who will be the Starbucks of hash?
Picture the scene: it's been a long day, you're feeling a little wired and have some time to kill. You drop into Dutchie's, a popular chain café, and place your order: "I'll have a skinny Morroccan and a gluten-free hash brownie, please." And you sit down among the business suits and chill...
If that scenario sounds a bit trippy, then think again. It seems that high times lie ahead, and there are signs that industry is ever more hungrily eyeing up the cannabis market in the wake of decriminalisation in the United States.
Rap artist-turned-entrepreneur Snoop Dogg announced this week that he is launching a marijuana-based media company, Merry Jane, providing news, information and entertainment about and for the rapidly expanding cannabis industry in the US.
Meanwhile, new research suggests that cannabis is fast moving towards the mainstream. The study predicts that cannabis will become an increasingly familiar culinary ingredient, as food and drink companies work to satisfy both foodies' appetite for new flavour sensations and the demand for more sugar-free, lower calorie alternatives to alcohol.
It is a trend that is already evident in the US, where the use, sale and possession of cannabis for medical and recreational use has been de-criminalised in a number of states. In addition to the couple of dozen states where medical use is permitted, the drug is now fully legal in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and District of Columbia. Other states are expected to follow, with Ohio and California both due to vote on legalisation in the coming months.
Foodies are starting to experiment. In a recent Newsweek article, a so-called "ganja gourmet" referred to only as Jeff described having successfully cooked cannabis-infused dinners including Beef Wellington, macaroni cheese, roast chicken with potatoes and sprouts as well as cheesecake using cannabis-infused butter or oil. His motivation was medicinal - inspired by a friend's sick mum. But with recreational cannabis use starting to gain wider acceptance, a number of chefs and food companies are taking a closer look.
Matt Gray, chief executive of US website The Stoner's Cookbook, has been quoted as predicting the legal marijuana industry to be worth $10.2bn within five years, and edible marijuana accounting for as much as 40pc of that. This is no niche market: research shows that 111 million Americans have used cannabis.
Most of those, of course, will have indulged in it illegally, and marketers are aware that they may have an image problem to contend with. "Who will become the Starbucks of pot?" asked the US business magazine Adweek.
"We want to show the world that normal, professional, successful people consume cannabis," Olivia Mannix, co-founder of US-based marijuana marketing agency Cannabrand told the magazine for its recent feature about emerging cannabis brands.
Already, there are signs that attitudes are changing. An EU poll last year found than more than half of all young Irish people, aged between 15 and 24, wanted to see cannabis legalised. A Behaviour and Attitudes poll carried out earlier this year on behalf of the Irish Independent and Today FM revealed that one in three people in the country would like to see the drug legalised.
A report published last week in Future of Food and Drink, by ad agency J Walter Thompson's futures-focused Innovation Group, shows a likewise more relaxed attitude towards the drug with 74pc of those surveyed in the US and born since the early 1980s - so-called "millennials" - and 58pc of that same age group in the UK believe marijuana will become as socially acceptable to consume as alcohol over the next decade, with cannabis-infused products benefitting from a consumer backlash against alcohol.
The many products now available in the US include cannabis-infused soft drinks by Dixie Elixir, chocolate and hash oil Hubby Bars, Bhang Chocolate and MariButter. With the psychoactive element present in the cannabis plant - tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) - still intact, many products are marketed for "medicinal" use. It's not all about getting high, though, with others using cannabis more for flavour. LA-based Compelling & Rich's marijuana-infused "green" coffee beans, for example, are prepared using a process during which the THC is burned off.
Current opinion is divided when it comes to the flavour benefits of using cannabis as a culinary ingredient, however. For some, the taste of the leaf left unmasked is too bitter. For others, though, different strains have very different flavours. And that's where connoisseurship and the culinary creativity of cannabis cuisine can come in, with the best effects reportedly from combining cannabis with fats such as butter, olive oil or cream. Used this way it is just another herb, advocates claim, with a particular aroma and taste unique to each strain.
But addiction expert Paul Mullins feels there are dangers to marketing the drug as just an exciting ingredient. "In my experience it's not harmless," he says. "I know many people in serious trouble because of it."
Paul works for Aiseiri, which runs adult treatment centres in Tipperary and Wexford, and adolescent treatment centre in Kilkenny, and says he has seen first hand the destructive effects of cannabis.
Far from being an innocent bit of fun for foodies, he believes cannabis can come with some very real health implications, including paranoia, insomnia, anxiety and exacerbating any existing mental health issues. "I'd be totally against seeing this trend for 'gourmet ganja' they have now in America being repeated here."
Prospects for the mainstreaming of marijuana in Ireland seem remote, where cannabis remains illegal. But the issue of decriminalisation is up for debate with Irish Minister with Responsibility for Drug Strategy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin keen to investigate Portugal's success with regulating marijuana.
"I'm an advocate for the discussion around the decriminalisation of drugs," he said in an interview with Hot Press earlier this year. Though, as he pointed out, decriminalisation and legalisation are two very different things. It is too soon to tell whether cannabis cuisine will become the next foodie frontier or… just a pipe dream. But for now, at least, one thing's for sure: there will be much experimentation and even more debate - amongst foodies and legislators, alike - while conclusions are drawn. Additional reporting by Chrissie Russell