On a recent Saturday night, I had big, vague plans to eat and maybe even drink a bunch of cannabis. Beyond that, I had no clue what to expect.
A few days earlier, I’d purchased a ticket for a party from a link in a newsletter I’d signed up for. I was going to a release fête for EP Infusions, a five-person indie operation out of Montreal that specializes in gourmet chocolate bars with a particular kick. Lately, EP has added sparkling beverages, packaged in curvy bottles like wine, but with zero alcohol and 60 mg of cannabinoids.
Despite EP’s contemporary branding, slick social media presence and reputation for quality, I couldn’t quite nudge stereotypical stoner images from my head.
Was I about to walk into a skunky basement full of glassy-eyed kids in drug rugs and rainbow-dreadlocked white girls attempting half-assed hula-hoop tricks in tie-dye tights and leg-warmers? If so, the plan was to moonwalk – maybe quite literally – the hell out of there right after sampling some of the infused treats in the name of diligent journalism.
But the venue wasn’t smoke-choked or dingy or even hidden. It was a lifestyle shop, and between its exposed brick walls and dramatic vaulted ceilings I found a thrum of stylish, happy people sipping chardonnay and nibbling on skewered prosciutto.
With flavour profiles like matcha white chocolate, espresso and dulce de leche, EP’s stunning washi-wrapped bars looked right at home beside Turkish towels, refurbished vintage sideboards and scented candles.
While 420 culture – replete with Bob Marley posters, crusty happy-face bongs and decimated chip bags – still exists in basements everywhere, the modern cannabis consumer is looking for a more elevated experience, pun obviously intended.
“I think it’s only elevation if you look at stereotypical perceptions [about cannabis],” says Roger Mand, who dreamed up EP Infusions three years ago in his kitchen. He still makes and labels his THC- and CBD-infused products, by hand.
“For me, being high is about appreciating flavours and visual beauty. Cannabis has always been underground, but it has this deep genetic connection to music, art and design,” Mand explains.
“So many products for stoners aren’t ‘nice,’ ” adds Teagan Young, EP’s production manager, pointing out their lineup of artfully wrapped bars as a counterpoint.
“Yet there’s a real market for products like ours,” she says of their positioning.
But until the Canadian government officially legalizes cannabis, an ongoing process that’s slated to happen this summer, Mand and Young operate their promising business in the grey market.
High-design cannabis concept shops like Tweed and Tokyo Smoke, which are owned by licensed marijuana producers (there are currently 90 in Canada) are lying in wait until they can legally sell cannabis flower and eventually, other consumables.
The feast featured a stoned and smoked branzino, wagyu kush beef and a decadent indica lava cake
In the meantime, independent artisans without glossy showrooms are working hard in the shadows to get their products to consumers that want – and need – them.
Angelina Blessed makes a line of vegan and gluten-free low-sugar treats under the label Blessed. As a professional mixed martial arts fighter dealing with pain from past injuries, she wanted to offer athletes and other relief-seekers a health-conscious alternative to pharmaceutical painkillers.
Blessed’s Oatmeal Peanut Butter Chocolate Cookie won second best edible in Canada at the 2018 Lift Awards, and Blessed also makes a super Instagrammable sprinkle-dusted Simpson’s doughnut that’s vegan and baked, instead of deep-fried.
Despite the thoughtful branding, the business remains a labour of love.
“There’s no money being made at this point. This is about putting a good quality, lab-tested product on the market and making sure that patients are getting what they need, because the access just isn’t there,” Blessed says to explain her motivation.
“I can offer a perfectly-dosed vegan, gluten-free chocolate bar made by one of the best chocolatiers in [Toronto] to someone who needs it. Many people in the craft cannabis industry are not recreational; we’re trying to help others.”
Blessed gets a surge of emails daily from cancer patients and mothers seeking infused treats for their epileptic children, and perhaps surprisingly, from women in the 30 to 50 age bracket who don’t want to stand outside smoking a joint, but still want to relax without turning to wine or valium.
Despite demand, Blessed is officially sold out until legalization. Blessed says she needs to cover herself so that she can continue business once “the government of Canada hopefully gets their shit together.”
While many craft companies focus on edible cannabis as a more natural medical alternative, the opportunity to earn a profit in the burgeoning world of edibles – and the “cannabiz” at large – is an undeniable motivator for companies entering the market.
Matt Wowk, part of the Food Dudes and partner in Toronto restaurants like Rasa and the forthcoming Tara and Blondie’s Pizza concepts, plans to drop a line of low-dosage, vegan, sugar-free treats – like gingery CBD-infused lollipops – once legalization hits.
Wowk and his business partner, Adrian Niman, have several projects on the go, but breaking into infused foods is a huge priority.
“The edible cannabis scene is really what we’re looking to take by the horns,” Wowk says of their strategic priority.
“We know it’s coming and we want to be the first people there.”
Wowk and Niman collaborated on a canna dinner in February with online cannabis resource, Hempster.
The guests, ten Canadian war and service veterans with cards for medical marijuana prescriptions, sat down to a seven-course feast featuring a stoned and smoked branzino with green pea weed purée and winter succotash, wagyu kush beef and a decadent indica lava cake with chocolate passionfruit ganache and liquid nitrogen ice cream to cap things off.
All portions were carefully dosed according to the individual requirements of each diner. Consuming cannabis no longer has to be a crapshoot that could result in a terrifying 12-hour trip, but can be a scientifically controlled experience that offers daily relief and relaxation to a swelling spectrum of consumers.
In many ways, it’s also the future.
Consuming cannabis no longer has to be a terrifying 12-hour trip
“Smoking a joint carries more of a stigma, but [edibles] are more appealing and more accessible – you can choose the dosage to pursue the kind of effect you want,” Wowk explains. “I think edibles and vaping are going to be the two main ways of consuming marijuana in the next ten years.”
Cannabis catering, then, makes sense. Wowk plans to do more cannabis food events as long as they’re in the legal sphere, and other prominent Toronto chefs like Charlotte Langley have hosted private dinners. Even the upscale Soho House held a collaborative dinner with Tokyo Smoke.
Once prototypical edibles like crumbly greenish brownies are déclassé and passé, now that traditional wine and spirits agencies see massive potential in adding cannabis sales to their business plan.
Lisa Campbell, “a badass lady in the cannabiz,” according to the popular online cannabis resource, Leafly, used to run Green Market, an underground marketplace for specialty products and a hub for makers, artisans and members of the growing Canadian cannabis community.
Green Market, which stopped running events earlier this year due to mounting liability issues, mostly showcased edibles, which Campbell also sees as one of the most promising sectors in cannabis.
As of March, she’s the brand new cannabis portfolio specialist for Lifford Wine & Spirits, an established national agency that this year is adding both beer and weed to their more traditional portfolio.
“We’ve gotten a lot of interest from Licensed Producers now that provincial regulations are coming out, and it’s looking like cannabis will be distributed similarly to alcohol,” Campbell says.
“I’ve heard that edibles may be on the shelves of the Ontario Cannabis Retail Corporation, or OCRC, as well as [infused] beverages, but it’s just rumours at this point.”
The Attorney General has announced that cannabis lounges will be considered in the second phase of legalization, and the AGCO will be in charge of laying out the licensing structure, which will regulate them.
Although it’s not likely that cannabis will be co-located beside alcohol in Ontario anytime soon, Campbell notes that several provinces in Eastern Canada will be allowing co-location and in an industry so young and disruptive, nothing is fixed.
“Ultimately, I think it should be about consumer choice. If we’re at a restaurant, you should be able to order your cannabis beverage and I can have my glass of wine – it shouldn’t be a problem,” Campbell says.
As independent producers and canna-corporations gear up for legalization, expect a torrent of innovation to create new products and design ways of marketing them.
“People are building up these cool brand and niche products, like EP Infusions and Canna Cocoa, which make beautiful hand-painted chocolates,” Campbell says.
“And big companies like Canopy Growth Corp have patents and trademarks for all of these brand new products.”
In an ironic twist, old-school treat factories are finding new life as grow ops and production facilities for licensed producers.
Tweed has set up shop in the former Hershey Chocolate factory in Smiths Falls, and CannabisCo recently purchased the old Nestlé plant in Chesterville.
Post-industrial towns are transforming into cannabis hubs. The Hamilton area has four licensed producers and Campbell describes what was once Steeltown as the new dispensary capital of Ontario.
It seems that the benefits of ingesting cannabis penetrate beyond mind, body and soul and deep into the Canadian economy.
(Mand, Young and Blessed are not the real names of cannabis company owners or employees.)