The pandemic has housebound Canadians spending more time in their kitchens, and it turns out an increasing number aren’t just baking bread.
They’re baking with bud.
A recent poll conducted by Dalhousie University suggests that since the start of the pandemic, 11.2% of Canadians have made their own cannabis edibles for the first time.
Sylvain Charlebois, a researcher at the university’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab, expressed his concerns about the trend last week in an opinion piece that ran in the Journal de Montréal.
“We’re a bit of a human lab for the rest of the world…They are looking at Canada as this nice, very convenient social experiment,” Charlebois said in an interview.
“I get calls from the media all over the world about edibles. A lot of people either don’t smoke or they don’t want to smoke, and so edibles are the obvious option they want to try.”
Charlebois said Health Canada restrictions preventing companies from manufacturing edibles without access to a licensed factory physically separated from other products have created significant obstacles for the agri-food industry. Because companies are prevented from offering consumers safe, high quality products, he said Canadians are left with limited options.
‘Cooking with fire’
Prices for legal options that do exist are high. This has led to a flourishing illicit market estimated to occupy between 75% to 85% of the Canadian market.
“I’m not a cannabis expert, but I look at food and I certainly look at food infused with cannabis,” Charlebois said.
“I’ve tried to assess how the Cannabis Act is influencing the food industry — or not — and how it’s influencing the black market of edibles. The vast majority of edibles that you see on the market right now are illicit.”
That leaves people who want to legally try edibles turning to their own kitchens.
They’re experimenting with cannabis-infused cookies, cakes, muffins, oils, spices, and other treats. Charlebois described this as “cooking with fire.”
“The people that were doing it before the pandemic, they probably knew what they were doing because they had the education and they were familiar with the product and the ingredient,” Charlebois said.
“But if you don’t know what you’re doing, you can get into some trouble very quickly.”
Charlebois said in order to properly cook with cannabis, you need to have substantial knowledge of the properties of a plant that until very recently was illegal. The characteristics of the cannabinoids vary widely, making it much safer to buy manufactured edibles unless/until you’re very experienced.
He believes the federal government dropped the ball around edibles and hopes it’s paying attention to what’s happening now.
“The federal regulators should be on this, they should be proactively looking at how an increased sale of cannabis is translating into people’s homes, what people are actually doing with cannabis,” he said.
“Some people out there are struggling and they go to drugs and alcohol to ease the pain a little bit. It’s certainly not desirable but it’s happening, and you want to acknowledge it instead of just not talking about it.”
‘People are already doing it’
When cannabis was legalized in 2018, Charlebois said the federal government “toned down the enthusiasm” related to legalization — in particular around edibles — due to concerns about potential social and safety risks.
He said while fears about young children being hospitalized after swallowing cannabis-infused chocolate bars was legitimate and expected, regulations have “gone too far.”
He said the COVID-19 crisis, coupled with a high demand for edible products, means risks must now be managed differently. He wants federal regulators to understand the new risks created by COVID and find ways to empower people with the information they need to safely cook with cannabis.
“I know that the last thing they want to do is encourage people to do it, but hey, guess what? People are already doing it,” he said.
“And it’s more than one in 10 Canadians who have started to cook with cannabis for the first time since March. That’s a lot of people.”
Charlebois’s advice to Canadians wanting to cook with cannabis for the first time is to enroll in legitimate online cooking classes or courses to learn how to do it properly and safely.
“They are out there and some of them are really, really good. And it’s a fun thing to do,” he said.
‘I should not be sneaking around like I am’
Jenny (not her real name) successfully sells illegal edibles in the Halifax area.
Among those “in the know,” she’s considered meticulous about the consistency of her products and is an advocate for people wanting quality, affordable edibles to manage chronic pain.
“I’m frustrated with the lack of movement here,” she said in an interview.
“Trying to educate folks is my goal. Also to save folks money, since the NSLC charged $7 for a 5 mg gummy at some point.”
A quick peek at the NSLC’s website on Thursday shows a package of two 4.5 mg gummies (9 mg total) selling for $8.60. By contrast, she offers a package of four 25 mg gummies (100 mg total) for $10.
She regularly educates people who want to make their own edibles, informing them about the importance of proper dosing.
She said she’s frustrated by the inaccurate information some local illegal edible sellers are providing their customers. Especially these days, as more people are turning to edibles to help with anxieties and issues related to the stresses of living in a pandemic.
She’s also concerned many sellers aren’t properly dosing their products.
“Without using a tCheck machine or similar gadget that reads and gives you accurate readings on THC and CBD in their oils or butters, folks are using an old math formula,” she explained, adding that each cannabis strain has a different percentage of THC and CBD.
“Their math is inaccurate so the dosing is all wrong…It could be double depending on the strain used. There are local edible makers not listing ingredients or strains or proper dosing, so we have folks ingesting 300 mg gummies.”
Jenny said that on the many cannabis-related online groups she belongs to, there are “lots and lots” of people baking with cannabis “without a clue how to properly do it.” She believes a lack of public education around edibles means many people are just learning by word of mouth. The problem is, the information they get isn’t always accurate.
If Health Canada changes its rules, she said she “definitely” plans to get a legal licence to produce.
“I think folks who want to sell edibles should first prove they know what they’re doing with some type of standards testing,” she said.
“Proper labels, knowledge, and they need to be teaching kids like they do with booze.”
Jenny agrees it’s critical to keep products that look like “yummy candy” out of the hands of children. She believes if packaging was designed to look more like medication and less like a tasty treat, it would help.
One of her concerns is what she calls the “huge market” of older Nova Scotians who’d benefit from cannabis products but can’t afford it or don’t know where to begin.
“By now they (edibles) should be available all over. I should not be sneaking around like I am with locked accounts, using word of mouth to get them out there,” she said.
“When a substance that has never seriously harmed anyone but has amazing healing properties is legal but hard to afford and access, then things need to change.”
‘Unregulated Wild West out there’
Digby County resident Dan Robichaud is an AIDS survivor who uses cannabis to help manage his pain and neurological issues.
A self-described cannabis influencer, he frequently shares photos of his cannabis-infused food creations on Instagram. From green tea cheesecake to pasta dishes and cinnamon rolls, Robichaud uses his homemade cannabutter (cannabis butter) on an almost daily basis.
A Health Canada-registered medical cannabis user, he stressed that he only uses the product for his own personal consumption and stays within his allowable limits.
Robichaud often sprinkles ground cannabis on his pizza — ”it’s a direct replacement for Italian seasoning!” — and spreads homemade cannabutter on his morning toast.
“I wouldn’t suggest to somebody who’s a greenhorn to marijuana to go consuming in reckless abandon,” he said in an interview. “If you’re not very familiar with marijuana, you want to figure out what you’re doing first.”
When he first started adding cannabis to his food a few years ago, Robichaud relied heavily on the internet to learn the ropes. He highly recommends that anyone learning how to properly cook with cannabis visit Nonna Marijuana on YouTube. The 90-something year old grandmother’s videos provide detailed instructions on how to do everything from making your own cannabutter to creating cannabis-infused brownies, cookies and egg nog.
“She explains to the very last detail how to make the butter and how to get the right chemical reactions,” he said. “That’s really something important to know.”
Robichaud said although getting cannabis and/or edibles from the NSLC or a licensed producer might be more expensive, it’s currently the only surefire way to know what you’re getting.
He encourages people starting out baking their own edibles to consider using cannabis food powder packets sold at the NSLC.
“It’s very expensive, but if you do want to add cannabis to your drink or to your meal or to your baking, you can buy those little pouches and then you know exactly the dose that’s gone in,” he said.
Although it’s taking longer than he’d like, Robichaud said he’s cautiously optimistic things are changing for the better. He’s hopeful a more varied and reasonably priced supply of legal edibles will be available to Canadians in the near future.
Like Jenny, he also cautions consumers about the pitfalls of the illicit edibles market. Robichaud knows Jenny through word of mouth and via mutual friends. He said she’s well respected because she goes out of her way to educate people, even if they don’t buy her products.
“I see ads on Facebook all the time for illicit marijuana products. How do you know if it’s a legitimate (Jenny) who does it very, very well that’s behind that? Chances are it’s not,” he said.
“There’s a lot of unauthorized illicit edibles out there that all claim to be the best in Canada. Most of them are scams…I’m not trying to discredit what everyone does, but there is an unregulated Wild West out there you need to be cautious of.”
I’m completely unsurprised that the illegal cannabis market is so much bigger than the legal one. The legal products are incredibly expensive, despite legal producers and retailers being able to operate openly – but perhaps that’s the problem. If it is more expensive to comply with the law than to break it then perhaps we need to look at making it less onerous to operate legally in Canada.
There’s something incredibly puritan about the way cannabis evangelists market their products – maybe people should just admit they want to get high?
“What did you do last night Steve?”
“I took my anti-cancer and anti-anxiety drugs”
“That’s all? Do you have to go and get an injection or something”
“Nah, they come in gummie form”
“That must have been a lot of gummies if it took you all last night”
“No, just a couple. Then I watched two seasons of Trailer Park Boys and ate a bag of zesty mordant chips”