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The Highs and Lows of Making and Drinking Cannabis Cocktails

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The Stoney Negroni, Sour T-iesel and Rolled Fashioned, from left, at Gracias Madre

The day of the cannabis cocktail is upon us. Currently, with some version of legal marijuana, either medicinal or recreational or both, in more than half of American states, the leafy green is increasingly easy to come by. With availability comes experimentation, not to mention an entirely new group of people curious to experience a legal high. And with experimentation, particularly in the case of the bartending community and the cocktails it makes, comes the inevitable issues of safety and responsibility.

Cannabis is composed of hundreds of cannabinoids, organic compounds that have various pharmacologic effects on the brain and body. The two most important for our purposes are CBD, which is non-psychoactive, and THC, the chemical that produces the high. According to the American Association of Clinical Chemistry (AACC), alcohol consumption raises THC concentrations to a significant degree, but this relates specifically to smoking pot and drinking separately at the same time.

When you add THC, usually in some sort of concentrated form, directly to a drink, you create one cohesive delivery system, one that changes cannabis’ overall effects. It’s also worth noting that in order for the psychoactive form of THC to be present in an infusion or tincture it needs to be decarboxylated, a process that involves heating the cannabis to alter its chemical form.

Jason Eisner and Gracias Madre (image: Eric Wolfinger)

Darcy O’Neill, a chemist and bartender who first pointed out the dangers of infusing alcohol with tobacco, offers up some practical advice when it comes to making cocktails. “Any time someone puts something with an active ingredient, like THC, into a drink, I do have a concern,” he says. “My advice to bartenders working with any cannabis components is to make sure the customer knows what they are getting. Just because we think a cannabis cocktail may be fun, there may be serious life consequences that we haven’t thought about.”

When you smoke weed, it travels directly from the lungs to the brain. When you ingest it, be it a brownie or a cocktail, the drug has to travel through the GI tract and the liver, which metabolizes the THC into a more concentrated form. Because of the delivery system, the effects of ingested THC take longer to feel and can last into the next day. And these basic facts don’t take into account the further complexities of potency or individual reactions.

Sour T-eisel at Gracias Madre (image: Jakob N. Layman)

All of these variables concern Matthew Rowley, a James Beard–nominated historian, author and retired museum curator whose specialty is illicit drinks. Rowley has consulted on a number of cannabis drink recipes and consistently sees inappropriate measurements, as well as a lack of basic knowledge, particularly for safe preparation.

“I love that bartenders and home mixologists are making cannabis cocktails,” says Rowley. “However, it’s the height of irresponsibility for [bartenders, writers, et al.] to fail to account for the strength of their concoctions.… There are some overlaps, but smoking and drinking cannabis provide two very different experiences with different onset times, durations and sensations.”

Jason Eisner, the co-owner of Block Party and beverage director at Gracias Madre, both in Los Angeles, has been mixing with CBD and THC personally for many years and recently started serving non-psychoactive CBD-laced cocktails at Gracias Madre. Eisner echoes Rowley’s opinion, saying, “The effects of THC tend to be far more powerful when consumed as a food or beverage. When ingesting marijuana in bulk, some people have even likened their experience to psychedelic drugs.” Even an experienced marijuana smoker will have a vastly different experience with edibles or, in this case, drinkables. In the case of cocktails, where people often drink more than one a night, the outcome is highly unpredictable.

Gracias Madre (image: Eric Wolfinger)

“First and foremost, the drinks, whether we’re talking about gin cocktails or chocolate milkshakes, must contain safe levels of cannabinoids, specifically THC, the plant’s well-known psychoactive component,” says Rowley. “For moderate users, 10 to 15 milligrams are generally considered a relatively safe dose. Safe dosing must be at the core of any cannabis drink recipe. And the key to safe dosing is to know your strain, especially when THC concentrations can vary wildly from strain to strain.” Of course, “safe” is a relative term. Depending on gender, body type, metabolism, experience and numerous other factors, what is “safe” for one person may not be for another.

It’s also important to note that a tincture or concentrate will be quite potent. Leafly, the world’s largest cannabis information source, recently noted in a cannabis cocktail article that, while raw marijuana has about a 20 percent concentration of THC, concentrates can have up to 90 percent. Mix that concentrate with booze, both of which have specific effects on body and mind, and you create an even more potentially mind-altering elixir.

“This is a conversation mostly about frequency (how often you use and how much you use), ignorance (how much you do or don’t know as it relates to marijuana’s effects on you) and personal responsibility (your own judgment or lack thereof),” says Eisner. “And that means both those making the drinks or offering up recipes for mixing, as well as those consuming the beverages, must be informed and vigilant.”

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