The Woman at the Center of Colorado's Booming Edibles Industry
Jaime Lewis, the founder of Mountain Medicine, blends her culinary expertise with her knowledge of weed in order to make edibles that don't taste like crap. We talked to the chef-turned-weed-chef about cooking with cannabis and the industry's future.
All photos by Melanie Metz
Driving to the headquarters of Mountain Medicine, a small kitchen in Denver that manufactures and distributes weed edibles to dispensaries all over the state of Colorado, is tricky. There's no storefront; it's tucked away behind an alley and past an armored gate. Once inside, it's not the distinctive smell of cannabis that hits you, but rather the scent of cinnamon. In addition to the industrial strength carbon filters that keep Mountain Medicine's neighbor's happy, that's due to the fact that Jaime Lewis, the brand's founder and executive chef, treats edibles with a culinary philosophy. In lieu of THC-drenched gummy worms, Lewis and her small staff use local ingredients to make bacon brittle, pie bars, and granola honey balls that will certainly get you stoned and actually taste good.
As the chairwoman of the National Cannabis Industry Association, the former chair of the Cannabis Business Alliance, and a founding member of Women Grow, she's also dedicated to making and improving marijuana policy in the state, as well as to helping to lay the groundwork for the inevitable federal legalization of weed. We spoke to Lewis about making edibles taste like real food, women in the marijuana industry, and the future of weed.
BROADLY: I've never been in a kitchen or a dispensary. I'm from New York where we very much don't have legal weed. I still have to have a dealer come to my house.
Jaime Lewis: Wow, that's so crazy.
Yeah, so just talk to me as if I was—
From New York.
Exactly. What brought you to the marijuana industry?
I recently came from California. About 10 years ago I was operating with a [weed] co-op out there. In California there's still a lot of gray area. Right now they're coming about with some medical marijuana regulations and will probably decide to go legal in 2016 with five or six other states.
At the time I was also an executive chef in San Francisco. One day, my former business partner told me his father was HIV-positive and needed someone to construct edibles for him because he was getting to the point where he couldn't smoke anymore. So I began creating these recipes around marijuana. It combined two of my favorite things: cannabis and food.
That experience really highlighted how much of a need there is for medical marijuana. I then started to work on creating regulations in San Francisco [for medical marijuana] and about five years ago I came out here because they were starting to do the first ever cannabis regulatory process—House Bill 12-84, which governs us now. I worked very closely on those regulations with the state and I started the trade association, Cannabis Business Alliance. I just stepped down as chair, but the CBA works closely with the Marijuana Enforcement Division and educates local law enforcement.
We have a lot of regulations that we have to go through, from the beginning to the end. This plant is tracked, and there's different standards for the medical side of things and the recreational side. On the medical side, we're tracked plant to patient—whether it's the THC oil or cannabis in its raw form. For medical marijuana, there's a batch number and a routing that says when it was planted, where it was grown, what it was grown with, and the time it was harvested. All that information then gets transferred into the state tracking system and is on every label of every product we sell.
So you started Mountain Medicine before Colorado legalized recreational weed?
Yeah. I was one of the first companies to go recreational when it happened. We had medical first and then, about two years ago, they allowed us to apply for a recreational license. There was a moratorium in place so that meant if you were a medical marijuana business you could go recreational first, before newcomers. Now we operate virtually two separate companies out of this space. When our recreational weed comes in, it's tracked all the way to the recreational sell—the same thing goes for medical. It's a lot of paperwork, but the systems only help us.
How do you make edibles? It smells amazing in here.
I was actually just working on some infusions. Everything is made from scratch. Because of my culinary background, I'm really particular about the ingredients that go into everything and the flavor. I dig they way a product can come out and not taste so much like cannabis. I've worked on a lot of products over the years. One of our staples is our pie bars that come in blueberry and cinna-apple.
That's what I smell, the cinna-apple.
Yeah, right now I'm sort of tinkering with the filling. I think it needs more cinnamon and less ginger, to make it less bitter.
I love your culinary approach to weed.
Well, it's a food product! I pay close attention to that fact because consumers and patients are going to eat this. I think that's something that made us fairly successful. We're in a competitive market here. There are about 100 marijuana infused products manufacturing facilities and, like, 200 dispensaries. But the great thing about competition is that it makes us better business owners.
Do you find that consumers are starting to become more discerning about their edibles?
I think it's starting to happen here. We recently co-branded with a local honey farmer. His name is Tim, and he has a company called Highland Honey. He's, like, this magic bee man. Each batch we get in is different because it's harvested from where the bees ate. Listening to him talk about honey is magical. Our collaboration marked the first time a weed company was able to use the label of a mainstream producer. For example, the bacon brittle we make with Tim's honey also uses local bacon, but we can't use the name of the bacon. I've always considered Mountain Medicine artisanal and I'd love to talk about where the products we use come from, but I just can't do that. Tim, however, really went out on a limb for us. He didn't even question it because local, raw honey, like cannabis, is a medicine. They work perfectly together. Like any other industry, we try to source the best ingredients to put into our products. I think the conversation is definitely starting to change. Soon it won't be a sea of chocolate bars and gummies—we're going to start to see more products that are specific to what consumers want.
What's the ratio of weed in an edible?
Cannabis consumption education is the most important thing. There's a lot of novice consumers who over-do and have an uncomfortable experience. Granted, this is a non-toxic product and you can't die from it. We actually worked really closely with the state of Colorado on their "Go Slow Go Low" campaign in 2014. We suggest 5mg for the novice consumer.
The state does have regulations in place. On the recreational side, edibles have to be in easily identifiable 10mg dosages. You either have to score the product, or like with our honey sticks, they're individually packaged. When you make a purchase on the recreational side, the maximum amount of active THC per container is 100mg. All the edibles on the recreational side have to be tested for dosage before we can release them to consumers.
That's helpful. I've had a few nightmarish experiences with edibles.
Yeah, it can be scary if you don't know what you're eating! Most of the edibles you'll find at a dispensary are in pharmaceutical packaging because it has to be child resistant and resealable. That's the most difficult thing for me as a chef. The packaging limits my research and development. It's not packaging made for food. So it's difficult to make an awesome cupcake or beautiful macaroons and try to put those into pharmaceutical packaging. We almost have to think about the packaging first before we can dive into the food.
You also started Women Grow, an association for women in the cannabis industry. Can you tell me about that?
I started Women Grow with a few other founding members in 2014. Most of us were based out of Colorado. We really just got together and decided that there needed to be a voice for women in this industry. Since then, we gave Jane West [a founder and the national events coordinator for Women Grow] the ball and she ran with it. Now there's this amazing network of women across the country. It's amazing. Women Grow gives all these women from various states—some of whom are operating illegally—a venue to have conversations with other women who are selling and consuming cannabis. There are now 36 chapters in the US and Canada.
Do you think women are taking the lead in the cannabis industry?
I think women are just finally being able to get recognition for the work they've been doing for years. Coming from California and moving to Colorado, I've had an amazing experience seeing the women in this industry who have been doing this for so long—like, over 10 years. Back then, this was not as cool as it is now. There's a lot of us who have been fighting for a long time and there's a lot of women who have been doing this longer than I have. And there's still so much work to be done. Women have always been a part of this industry. Cannabis is a female plant; there are no males in any of these gardens.