Tim Williams stands over a stove in a Missoula commercial kitchen and wrings and squeezes a bundle of red cheesecloth, and out oozes dark green juice laden with tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. The marijuana trimmings inside the cheesecloth had been simmering in a vat of butter for about 24 hours, and Williams will now use that butter to create an array of ganja goodies for hundreds of medical marijuana patients around Montana.
But Williams, who holds a medical marijuana caregiver card and a culinary degree, isn't just baking brownies.
"I'm trying to take marijuana food from the pot brownie you bought at a Grateful Dead show to the kind of five-course fine dining meal you'd get at Spago," he says.
Williams, 32, who worked for restaurants around Chicago and Denver before moving to Montana, runs through the carte du jour, all made with the pot butter and oil he makes at the Montana Cannabis kitchen on the corner of Orange and Third streets: raspberry, balsamic and thyme vinaigrette; pineapple, ginger, sesame and soy dressing; chocolate truffles with cherry and peppermint; and chocolate cherry chunk, oatmeal raisin and peanut butter cookies.
On any other given day Williams might be cooking up cranberry and orange or banana and walnut muffins. Or a raspberry streusel. Or gluten-free blueberry coffee cake. Or a diabetic-friendly version of his oatmeal raisin cookies. He even makes cheesecakes and pumpkin pies infused with cannabis.
"Those," he says of the pies, "were big on Thanksgiving and Halloween."
Just as Montana's medical marijuana boom brought the industry out of clandestine grow rooms and onto main street, it's also brought it into the kitchen, where chefs like Williams work to give patients more—and usually healthier—options for taking their medicine. Williams estimates he bakes about 1,000 "medibles" each week, serving Montana Cannabis' roughly 300 registered patients around the state, including about 50 in Missoula. The baked goods typically cost $5 a piece.
"A lot of physicians recommend eating marijuana," says Tom Daubert of Montana Cannabis and the founder of Patients and Families United, the main group lobbying for medical marijuana rights in Helena. "It's actually a superior method for a great many patients, particularly pain patients."
Count Sonny Martin among them. Williams calls Martin his "guinea pig," and he shows up on a recent Friday to taste-test the vinaigrette inside Williams' blender.
Martin, 27, has an extremely rare bone condition that causes cartilage to "just fall off," as he describes it. Since childhood, Martin has had his spine completely fused, an ankle fused and both knees replaced. For years he was prescribed heavy doses of opiates to deal with the pain. That was until a year and a half ago.
"I had an honest conversation with [my doctor]," he recalls, "and I said, 'This stuff is going to kill me. I know it is. I don't want to be on this anymore. I don't want to be on any pharmaceuticals anymore. The biggest favor you can do for me is not giving them to me and sign my paper.' And she said, 'All right. I hear you. I'll do that.'"
Now Martin, a student at the University of Montana majoring in business administration, says he's able to manage his pain largely by eating Williams' snacks.
"The effects people are scared of just aren't there," Martin says.
Adds Williams: "It's a gateway off of drugs."
The benefits of eating medical marijuana may be clear to Martin and others, but the law surrounding medibles is anything but. The Montana Medical Marijuana Act defines usable marijuana as "any mixture or preparation of marijuana," and allows caregivers to possess an ounce for each patient. A literal reading of the bill suggests that food products weighing more than an ounce, no matter how little actual marijuana they contain, are illegal for a medical marijuana patient to posses.
"No court has come down and decided that's the way it is, and it could probably vary from prosecutor to prosecutor...," says Mark Long, chief of the state's narcotics bureau. "But in my travels around the state, talking to groups and discussing this issue, it seems like everybody in law enforcement is pretty much on the side of 'an ounce of food product is an ounce.'"
To date, neither Long nor Daubert are aware of a ruling that's tested how the state deals with patients or caregivers in possession of food products. That doesn't change Long's opinion that the weight of a baked good translates to usable marijuana.
"Right, wrong or otherwise," he says, "at least in our agency, that's how we're interpreting it."
Daubert says the issue will likely be—and needs to be—addressed by the 2011 Montana Legislature.
"I think we're going to need to clarify that in a way that allows patients to use foods," Daubert says.
In any case, Williams will continue to create cannabis concoctions in his kitchen, and they'll continue to be gobbled up.
"The people here in Missoula are lucky because I have a Twitter site," he says. "Go onto twitter.com and search 'mtcannabisbaker.' I type in what's hot and ready—'I've got chocolate cherry chunks, I've got fresh peanut butter cookies.' So if your favorite cookie is peanut butter, you can come and get 'em warm."
And patients do. In fact, Williams says enough patients flock to his kitchen for piping hot pot food that he had to switch from plastic bags to paper to prevent them from melting. However tempting it may be, though, Williams warns his patients to refrain from eating more than one at a time: He says they're pretty darn potent.