Expect more cannabis-infused dining events in Michigan — though there are still some legal kinks to work out

click to enlarge The crowd for a secret pop-up cannabis-infused event in Detroit. - Courtesy of Cloud Cups
Courtesy of Cloud Cups
The crowd for a secret pop-up cannabis-infused event in Detroit.

Every few years, a food we were either unaware of or told was bad for us is rescued from the "don't" list and given a new multimillion-dollar PR makeover: Red wine. Chia seeds. Dairy. Coconut oil. The other white meat. The incredible, edible egg. And now, our insatiable desire to find and conquer new gastronomic markets — and the fact that Michigan voted to legalize adult-use recreational marijuana in 2018 — has brought us here. Weed: It's what's for dinner.

About three weeks after Prop 1 came into effect in late 2018, I investigated an "Infused Brunch" held in a secret location somewhere in Detroit, and presented by Magical Butter, a company that manufactures slow cookers designed to produce cannabis-infused butter and oil, for home recipes. The event hosts are a Washington, D.C.-based outfit called Cloud Cups, and a glance at their Instagram page reveals that they make THC- and CBD-laced Gelato, while hosting pop-up dinners like this all over the country.

On the phone, Cloud Cups co-founder Galen Thomas gives a brief overview of the company's history. He describes the project's arc as a "social experiment that turned into a business." He met chef Miya Pack while the two were working an event in the Hamptons for New Jersey's Weekender Festival, and was particularly impressed by her waffle recipes. Their brunch event in Detroit featured a full "infused waffle bar" with mimosa, eggnog, and banana pudding flavors. Pack is a military veteran and graduate of Walnut Hill Restaurant School in Philadelphia who fell into the world of catering, but quickly became interested in experimental cooking.

The third member of the collective is Sierra Georgia, who opened D.C.'s first Gelato truck in 2013. In 2017, she founded her own brand of the Italian dessert, Gelat'oh Brick & Mortar, after attending Carpigiani Gelato University in Bologna, Italy. She started out making cupcakes, but was drawn to the versatility of her new medium. "Anything you eat or drink, I can turn into Gelato," she says. Turns out things you smoke can become Gelato, too.

When I pull up to meet the Cloud Cups team at their rented Airbnb in Birmingham, I can smell something cooking from outside, and it isn't waffles. They're hosting a dinner as well as the brunch, and they have a lot of prep work to do.

Washington, D.C., voted to legalize recreational cannabis use in 2014. But Thomas says that much like Michigan today, there are not yet dispensaries where recreational users can buy cannabis. (Michigan's are expected to open early next year.) Instead, they rely on a "gifting" system; since it's legal for an adult to give up to 2.5 oz. of marijuana or 15 grams of concentrate for free to another adult, some companies have begun to offer overpriced items — like, say, a $100 T-shirt — that just so happen to come with a gift of "free" weed. Thomas explains that he believes the legal defense for hosting cannabis pop-up dinners follows the same logic: a guest pays for the cost of food, labor, space rental, and other administrative costs. The cannabis, however, is simply gifted.

Cloud Cups have recently acquired an interesting new business partner: a New York company called Weedskey, which makes THC-infused spirits. It's a bold move, as alcoholic beverages containing THC are illegal under 2018 Michigan Public Act No. 346.

Thomas says that dosage for the evening comes in at around 30mg of THC in the food, with another 15mg of THC in the drinks. This sounds like a lot — most people recommend a dose of around 10mg for less dedicated smokers, and as low as 5mg for the very inexperienced or first-time users. But Thomas says that they use CBD-infused dishes — that's a non-psychoactive component of marijuana, touted for its healing properties — at their events to mitigate the effects of too much THC. They've had good results from their CBD Gelato outside the dinners as well — Thomas's aunt, a retired police officer from the narcotics division, said it relieved her chronic back pain of 20 some years.

When I set out to cover this event, I had a clear idea of what not to do: the 2008 BBC documentary Should I Smoke Dope? in which journalist Nicky Taylor works in an Amsterdam Coffee Shop for a month, ignores the owner's warning not to smoke too much her first time, and proceeds to freak out in her hotel room. After nearly an hour, Taylor's only real conclusion is "not for me," and the camera closes on her drinking a glass of white wine.

I'm disappointed to report that this is more or less exactly what happened to me.

At the secret dinner event space in Eastern Market, that familiar smell from the team's Airbnb is once again present outside, and a single Detroit police SUV is parked on Russell St. Upstairs, a large banquet table sits in the middle of the room, with 20 seats in total. Cloud Cups have hired a videographer to document the evening, who has come up from Atlanta, and blows large vape clouds while filming swooping shots of the dining table on a gyro-balanced camera. A server from D.C. introduces herself — she's worked the last four events with Cloud Cups and says this setup is one of the most impressive to date.

click to enlarge New York-based Weedskey makes THC-infused spirits. - Courtesy of Cloud Cups
Courtesy of Cloud Cups
New York-based Weedskey makes THC-infused spirits.

Georgia is behind the bar, and pours the house mimosa — a cold-pressed juice infused with a cannabis tincture and topped up with sparkling wine. For the cannabis, they've chosen a variety called Snowman, which is a sativa-dominant hybrid strain. Thomas explains that they try not to use Indica varieties, known for their more sedating effect. "We don't want to put anyone to sleep," he says. The mimosa has a big skunky taste up front, dominated by flavor profile that is unmistakably weed-heavy. But in the middle of the mouth, the clean, fresh flavors of the cold-pressed juice come through, and the dry effervescence of the bubbles scrub your palate clean. It is delicious.

Less than an hour into the event, Georgia is holding court behind the bar. About 10 guests are crowded around her, sipping their green mimosas. The house cocktail for the evening is sweet tea and bourbon. Yes, it is also cannabis-infused. Everything tonight has weed in it, I'm told repeatedly.

When we first RSVP'd for the event, we were asked to choose an entrée — a choice of fried chicken, braised turkey wing, fried whiting, or braised beef rib. It turns out my two dining partners couldn't join me this evening, and I don't want to waste anything. After all, I'm here to check out the food — so naturally, I volunteer to eat their portions.

Shortly after I finish the mimosa, I'm poured about two ounces each of the Weedskey line of beverages — a 40 percent ABV brown liquor ("Oak Barrel Reserve"), a 13 percent vodka ("Premium Reposado Budka"), and a 13 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. The labels also give the THC content for each, but I can't quite work out the numbers — the whiskey and Cab are listed as "25MG/7.34MG PS" and the Vodka as 200MG for the whole container. I'm tentative, but also feel like I need to try everything. For the story, of course.

A couple minutes after I finish my mimosa, I start to feel something. Is this the alcohol, or the weed? I'm not sure.

There are three different types of cornbread on the table — sweet potato, apple, and cheddar jalapeño. I nibble on each, and try my Weedskey flight. The bourbon tastes like bourbon. The Cabernet is sweet, but not unpleasant — I'm told it's made from a dehydrated base. The "Budka" is similar — I can't taste anything, and finish all three fairly quickly, against instructions.

Right before dinner comes out, Chef Pack addresses the table. She talks about her Afro-Cuban and Caribbean parentage, and the influence in her cooking. "The bones are suckable and delicious. Do that," she says. But over at my seat, I'm feeling a little too self-conscious to go full caveman. When my mixed-plate of short-rib, whiting, and chicken thigh arrives, I am definitely feeling my Weedskey flight and mimosa. The ladies across the table are laughing. Do I look high? Yes, they tell me.

After about three hours, things are winding down. Someone knocks a chair over on the way to the bathroom. On the way out, a young couple from upstairs are now standing on the sidewalk. How are they feeling? "Wonderful," the lady says. At 10:24 p.m. I get into my Uber, go home, and sleep for 10 hours.

The next day at Om's Dab House, a medical marijuana patient club on the west side, Afternoon Delite hosts a public meet and greet with two Instagram stars from California. The young women with Instagram handles "Koala.puffss" and "macdizzle420" have more than 800,000 followers between them, and 700 people have RSVP'd for the event. Koala Puffs is 24, weighing just over 100 lbs, and regularly pulls stunts for Instagram like eating 500 to 1000mg of THC edibles in one sitting. Inside, the air is thick with smoke, and the mostly-young crowd line up to get their picture taken with the two, and receive a free "dab" — a high-powered concentrated form of smokable cannabis favored by self-styled connoisseurs and medical patients, who tend to develop higher tolerances.

The owners of Afternoon Delite primarily make gummies and vape cartridges, and won first place in the edible category at the 2018 Midwest Cannabis Cup. They're knowledgeable in multi-state operations, and say that there is a potentially valid legal argument for the THC-infused beverages I tried at Cloud Cups' event — they've been gifted, and as such are not bound by Act 346.

But Ryan Jacque, an Attorney at Cannabis Licensing Law in Lansing, disagrees. "I don't see a loophole related to gifting or personal use," he says. "I think it's a pretty blanket crime to have any sort of cannabis-infused beverage that has alcohol in it. If I was advising any client, I would say there's no real exceptions to that rule."

It's counterintuitive. Smoking weed is legal. Drinking alcohol is also legal. But putting them in the same container isn't? At least for now, that seems to be the case.

The intent, Jacque speculates, was to prevent a new commercial industry of THC-laden alcoholic drinks from advancing before lawmakers have a firm understanding of the potential consequences. Ben Rosman, CEO of Michigan's first licensed cannabis-testing facility, PSI Labs in Ann Arbor, says he often sees policies that don't match up to science. Aspergillus fungal spores are currently on the list of banned contaminants in cannabis edibles, but there's an issue. Aspergillus is only hazardous if inhaled, and mainly for individuals with compromised immune systems. Until this is remedied, Michigan dispensaries will keep experiencing the product shortage they've seen in recent months from wave after wave of product recalls — some of which, Rosman says, is perfectly safe.

But some people in Michigan are concerned with the potential effect on public health. Dr. Donald Condit is an orthopedic surgeon based in Grand Rapids who urged people to vote no on Proposal 1 last November. He specifically points to the risk presented by edibles, and instances where children have been hospitalized after accidentally ingesting cannabis gummies. He is incredulous of many ideas taken for granted among cannabis users. I tell him that some people now regard sugar as a greater threat to our health than cannabis. "It's a ridiculous comparison," Condit says — people who eat too much sugar aren't a risk to others on the road.

But when asked if he thinks the medical community will ultimately be able to define and articulate what measured, responsible adult use might look like, he says he does. Condit thinks that the medical community fundamentally failed to adequately warn the public about the dangers of cannabis — understandable, perhaps, due to federal restrictions on cannabis research. So until cannabis is decriminalized on the federal level, the public is fumbling in the dark, probing boundaries much like those in the legal field.

In July, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a set of temporary emergency rules for recreational cannabis meant to address some issues unresolved by Prop. 1. The provisions allow for marijuana consumption lounges and consumption at special events, but do not allow lounges to serve food or alcohol. The state will begin taking event applications Nov. 1.

Later, I ask a friend if they'd like to join me for a Cloud Cups brunch event. Initially, I get a suspicious sideways look. "I can't eat food with weed in it," they say, flatly. But on this occasion, I've made arrangements for Chef Pack to serve us a meal specially prepared without cannabis, so I can try and cover the event sober. The team is happy to accommodate us, and even has a term for these requests — what they refer to as a "grounded" meal.

Back in the Eastern Market space, I look out the window at the purple Aretha Franklin mural on Market Street, and feel like she's staring at me. Am I still feeling my collard greens from dinner? My dining partner and I are served "grounded" waffles with syrup and strawberries.

Thomas addresses the room, wearing a Lions jersey. "Are you guys ready to get high?" he says. "I'm high right now."

He tells everyone the dosage, which is lower than last night, and I wonder if I had anything to do with it. The dishes today are around 2.5mg each, and the drinks are around 5. Everything today is served family style, including plates of rosemary steak, chicken and biscuits, gravy, and Pack's signature banana pudding waffles, topped with Nilla Wafer and Chessmen cookies. They've even added a Michigan apple waffle as a special menu item.

A "grounded" plate of shrimp and grits arrives, and we both agree that Chef Pack nails the flavors and textures in the dish, with a sharp red-pepper sauce cutting through the creamy, custard-like Parmesan grits. My dining partner comments on how good the THC-infused banana pudding waffles look, and I cave. What's 2.5mg anyway?

Immediately, I get it. This is what Thomas was talking about — pillowy, moist, and not too rich. The difference? That extra fat from the Magical Butter machine, no doubt.

No point in stopping now. I help myself to fried chicken, biscuits, and gravy that's herbaceous but without a hint of weed. I remember what Chef Pack told me back in Birmingham — cannabis is an herb, just like any other, and can be balanced in any dish.

The group of ladies is singing along to Ja Rule, and I think it's safe to say they're enjoying themselves. I feel great, until I notice someone across the table is staring at me. Then I realize — I'm sitting in front of the TV set, and he's watching the Lions game behind me.

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