As cannabis proceeds along its slow, state-by-state, journey toward legalization, it brings with it a new industry that looks increasingly like the craft beer business. For the first time, Americans, at least in some parts of the country, can exercise consumer choice when it comes to their marijuana. A multitude of small enterprises have emerged to capture demographics previously put off by the social taint and practical complications of its unlawful procurement, releasing products branded to match active, health-conscious, and luxury-oriented lifestyles.
Today’s marijuana industry promises a quality of experience suited to connoisseurship. In the same way that American beer drinkers have learned the difference between ales and lagers, weed smokers can determine whether they prefer sativa or indica, the primary species of cannabis plant. Equally important is the delivery system. While rolling a joint with the dried flowers of the cannabis plant remains a popular way to consume pot, smokers and non-smokers alike have an increasing range of consumption options. California’s medical dispensaries, which’ll open to the general public next year, usually carry a wide assortment of cannabis products.
Cannabis food was introduced into popular culture with the publication of The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook in 1954, but the homemade brownies of yesteryear have lately been replaced by the weed-infused concoctions of professional pastry chefs. The City’s Madame Munchie purveys medical macarons that’re as perfect as the colorful meringue cookies baked in Paris. Flour Child sources organic Northern California ingredients to make healthful granola and seasonal fruit jams, in addition to mixing marijuana-based “topical remedies” for skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis. The cookies produced by Moonman’s Mistress, $22 for a box of five, have cornered the market on San Francisco’s gluten-free and vegan marijuana enthusiasts.
Marijuana also comes in beverage form. Sprig, a canned, citrus-flavored soda made with cannabis oil, but “with no ‘earthy’ taste,” bills itself as “a social and fun experience,” meant for the beach and hiking adventures. Earlier this year, Ritual Coffee, a chain of roasteries and cafes with five locations in the City, teamed with Oakland-based company Somatik to produce an artisanal cold brew for pot lovers, sold for $12 per bottle.
Unlike Toklas’s “haschich fudge” – whose recipe called for an unmeasured “bunch of canibus sativa,” pulverized and mixed with spices – California’s “medibles” are, by law, labeled to indicate their tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, content. Still, they’re known to cause occasional trouble for novices, who may have a hard time determining the right amount for themselves. Unlike smoked marijuana, edibles aren’t immediately absorbed by the body. Two hours may pass without any perceptible effects, but once they set in they can last for eight hours, which may make for a scary experience for new users. San Francisco food writer, Stephanie Hua, who makes medical marshmallows under the brand name Mellows, plays it safe. Each of her confections contains only five milligrams of THC, about half of what doctors consider a “standard dose.”
In Dogpatch, at Dutchman’s Flat Medical Cannabis Dispensary, according to owner Robert Watson, only 30 percent of his sales come from “flowers.” His customers are increasingly interested in “microdosing,” a technique favored by marijuana users who want to relax a bit rather than get truly high, and in CBD products. CBD is short for cannabidiol, a chemical compound found in cannabis. Unlike fellow cannabinoid THC, CBD is non-psychoactive, meaning it can’t get you high, but it’s thought to have a multitude of therapeutic applications and is used for pain, anxiety, nausea, and even epilepsy.
CBD products usually include some quantity of THC to achieve what’s known as the “entourage effect,” as marijuana’s chemical compounds are thought to work more powerfully in concert than they do on their own, but in many cases the THC content is so low as to make the products non-intoxicating. For instance, Sonoma County’s Care By Design sells vape cartridges, tinctures – which’re delivered as sublingual drops or sprays – and soft gels whose CBD-to-THC ratios go as high as 18:1.
Watson said that Dutchman’s Flat’s two bestselling items are Kiva Terra Bites, a line of chocolate-covered blueberries containing five milligrams of THC per serving; and the Harmonic line of marijuana vape cartridges by Level Blends, which have a 1:2 CBD:THC ratio. Vaporizers present an alternative to smoking; they heat marijuana at a lower temperature, avoiding combustion, which produces carcinogens and irritates the lungs. An inexpensive vape pen costs less than $50.
Still, smoking hasn’t gone out of fashion, and the reputation of bongs, in particular, has only risen. Harkening to the artistic side of marijuana culture, a well-designed bong is regarded not only as a functional smoke filtration device but also a conversation piece, or, arguably, a sculpture. Last year, Vice ran a piece about a $300,000 bong on display at New York Fashion Week.
San Franciscan Liam Kaczmar is an artist, filmmaker, and designer who produces “ceramic stonerware” for the “aesthetic connoisseur.” According to Kaczmar, he started his small business, Summerland, when he was “living on Haight Street and running a small clothing brand. At this same time, I started using cannabis more regularly, and was on the hunt for a bong of my own, but was seeking something that was sleek and minimally designed, reminiscent of Japanese ceramics. My efforts to find anything like that on the market were fruitless, so I decided to start making them myself.”
He explained that there’s “a lot to be said about using a piece that is designed with form parallel to function. These pieces look beautiful on your coffee table, and after a few good rips, when the euphoria is just starting to set in, the piece feels amazing in your hands and you can’t help but keep holding it and getting lost in the experience.” Kaczmar also values a “cleaner smoke” and remarked on the “harmful chemicals that you are exposing yourself to when you heat up metal” bongs, which “contain a lot of unknown fillers.” Summerland bongs cost about $200 each.
Dustin Revere, a glassblower in Berkeley, was introduced to marijuana paraphernalia while growing up with a backstage pass to the Grateful Dead in the early 1990s, when his best friend’s mom worked for the band. Initially self-taught, he subsequently learned classical glassblowing in Murano, Italy, and figured out how to “transfer the information” to the making of bongs. Asked to explain the difference between smoking through a mass-produced plastic bong and an artisanal glass one, he used a metaphor. “If you enjoy driving cars, for example, you could buy a 1983 broken-down Civic,” or you could “buy a really nice BMW or a Bugati or a Bentley or whatever.” Either way, you’d “still get from Point A to Point B, but the experience would be a lot better” in a luxury car. Revere Glass pieces can cost a few thousand dollars.
A newer iteration of the standard bong is a device called an “oil rig,” which is constructed to enable a practice called “dabbing.” In his book How to Smoke Pot (Properly), published last year by Penguin Random House, David Bienenstock, the former West Coast editor of High Times, explained. “The fastest-growing trend in cannabis culture right now is most definitely dabbing, which involves vaporizing high-potency cannabis concentrate produced by a chemical solvent to extract cannabinoids and terpenes” – aromatic compounds – “from raw cannabis.” In dabbing, a “viscous goo” called “honey oil” – also known as BHO, a descendent of hashish, the compressed cannabis resin that has existed for “thousands of years” in places like Morocco, Nepal, and India, and remains more popular in Europe than marijuana flowers – is smeared onto a “glowing-hot titanium nail” and then inhaled through a bong. Dab enthusiasts stand in stark contrast to the culture of “microdosing” described by Watson.
Bienenstock has “seen literal legends of cannabis temporarily reduced to mental rubble by too much BHO taken in too quickly.” He noted that BHO production is “extremely dangerous.” As “someone heavily invested in seeing cannabis culture flourish, I just don’t think blowtorches and 90 percent THC is our best foot forward into the larger world,” he observed. But for those determined to try puffing from an oil rig, he recommends for inexperienced users “a dab about half the size of a grain of rice, consumed while well hydrated and fully seated.”