Pesto with a punch: Edible marijuana in Canada's future
Munching treats like 'weedish meatballs' may soon outpace smoking, but some doctors are concerned
Canada's infatuation with getting a legal high may soon lead straight to Mary Jean Dunsdon's Vancouver kitchen. The self-described diva of cooking with cannabis has been baking and selling intoxicating edibles for the better part of 20 years.
"I've easily sold 700,000 to one million cookies," she told CBC News recently in her kitchen.
"I've done it all: 'nice cream cones', marijuana bacon, I've made 'weedish meatballs'," she said.
With legalization on the way in Canada, Dunsdon is hoping her underground bakery and the goodies she sells to a loyal base of medical and recreational customers will finally emerge from the shadows and capture a slice of a new market for marijuana edibles.
New Frontier Financials, which tracks the growth of the U.S. marijuana industry, says Washington state's sale of about 280,000 units of edible marijuana in March is double what it was just 10 months ago. For Canada, it's a trend line that offers a glimpse into the future and also a cautionary tale.
During our visit, Dunsdon ground up marijuana leaf and bud and sprinkled the herb mixture over a fillet of wild B.C. chinook salmon. The topping bears a striking resemblance to pesto.
Users say the high and the experience that comes with ingesting marijuana are markedly different than with smoking. The former produces an all-over "body high" and there can be a significant time lag until the sensation kicks in.
With smoking, the effects of THC, the chemical responsible for most of marijuana's psychological effects, occur much faster. That makes it easier to control the dose and to know when you've had too much.
Top health official concerned
"I think we have to think carefully about what format we'd like to have edibles available," said Dr. Patricia Daly, the chief medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health.
"We had 63 visits to St. Paul's Hospital emergency department for marijuana intoxication. Seventy per cent [of those people] had consumed edible products," says Daly.
For adults, overdoing it on marijuana edibles rarely leads to serious consequences beyond intense anxiety or a strong urge to go to sleep. But for kids, Daly says, the consequences can be far more severe.
"For very young children it can depress respiration, it can lead to a coma. In the United States, about seven per cent of reported poisonings ended up in critical care units."
In its 2015 poison control report, the Washington Poison Center said it received 86 calls about accidental exposure to marijuana edibles, up from only 38 incidents in 2014. Last Halloween it issued a special warning to parents about marijuana treats.
Fans of edibles won a small victory last year when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the government couldn't restrict licensed medical users to smoking the bud they purchased under the Harper government's Marijuana for Medical Purposes Regulations, or MMPR.
Testing the product
"Beer consumers want to have a consistent product, and I think marijuana customers are going to want the same thing," said Emily Kirkham, vice-president of laboratory operations for Signoto Labs in Vancouver.
Dealing with a natural product and a potency that varies from plant to plant will be among the challenges for the marijuana testers.
"Labs have to have standardized testing," said Kirkham.
Still, Kirkham believes issues of quality control and the safety of edible products can be overcome.
"We can put childproof packaging and proper labelling and in that case, it's really no different than a pharmaceutical."
The federal justice minister has been unwilling to say how long it will take to set up the new rules for legalization.
"We will take the time that is necessary to get this right," Jody Wilson-Raybould said in a statement emailed to CBC News.