The evolution of pot cooking was perhaps inevitable given the explosion of medical marijuana around the country in recent years.
DENVER — Any slacker living over his parents' garage can make pot brownies. Gourmet chefs are taking the art of cooking with marijuana to a higher level.
In Denver, a new medical-marijuana shop called Ganja Gourmet serves cannabis-infused specialties such as pizza, hummus and lasagna. Across town in the Mile-High City, a Caribbean restaurant plans to offer classes on how to make multi-course meals with pot in every dish.
And in Southern California, a low-budget TV show called "Cannabis Planet" has won fans with a cooking segment showing viewers how to use weed in teriyaki chicken, shrimp capellini and steak sandwiches.
The evolution of pot cooking was perhaps inevitable given the explosion of medical marijuana around the country in recent years. Many health-conscious patients would rather eat the drug than smoke it. And they would prefer to eat something other than sugary treats.
"When I started using marijuana, I was eating a brownie every day. I gained a ton of weight," said Michael DeLao, a former hotel chef who hosts the "Cannabis Planet" cooking segments on Los Angeles' KJLA. "Then I learned how to really cook with marijuana, and once more people learn about all the possibilities, we're going to see a lot more people wanting this in their food."
Ganja Gourmet's menu includes lasagna ("LaGanja"), "Panama Red Pizza" and an olive tapenade called "ganjanade," along with sweets such as cheesecake, muffins and brownies. Employees wear tie-dyed T-shirts that proclaim, "Our food is so great, you need a license to eat it!!!"
All patrons at the Ganja Gourmet must show a medical marijuana card that proves they have a doctor's permission to use pot for some kind of malady. The place opened last week, and so far, 90 percent of its business has been takeout.
The food isn't cheap. A whole pizza sells for $89, and a dozen sweet treats called Almond Horns cost $120.
"The food is really good," said Jamie Hillyer, a 41-year-old medical marijuana patient who paid $12 for a serving of vegetable LaGanja. Hillyer said that he can't taste the weed in the food and that it gives him a "more mellow" buzz than smoking pot.
Chefs are able to use marijuana in cooking because its key ingredient, the mind-altering drug THC, is fat-soluble, meaning it binds with oils or fats.
Marijuana chefs put leaves or buds in a food processor and grind the marijuana into green flour. Then they add the flour to oil or butter, cook it slowly for up to a couple of days while the THC binds to the fat, and strain out the green flakes.
The result is "cannabutter," or butter that makes a diner high. Chefs say 2 teaspoons of cannabutter typically contain the amount of THC in an ounce of weed.
The pot-infused oils and butters have a greenish tint and an earthy taste, but chefs say the flavor can easily be masked with garlic or other herbs and spices.
Denver's 8 Rivers Modern Caribbean restaurant does not serve pot-infused food, but its husband-and-wife owners, Scott Durran and Wanda James, plan to offer cooking-with-marijuana classes starting next month. They also own a medical marijuana dispensary, which they hope will eventually offer take-home soups and roasted chicken.
Marijuana chefs say it takes 20 minutes to two hours for the pot-laced food to produce a high. The biggest problem, they say, is that users often eat too much, thinking the food isn't working. While you can't exactly overdose on marijuana food, people who eat too much may feel more sluggish or disoriented than they would like.
So at Ganja Gourmet, customers are allowed to eat only one menu item every 45 minutes.
(The drug takes so long to start working that there's little chance of a customer developing a case of the munchies and getting hungrier the more he ate.)
Ganja Gourmet owner Scott Horowitz tried to get liability insurance of the sort bars take out to protect themselves against damage caused by intoxicated patrons. But he said he couldn't find any insurers selling similar coverage for pot shops.
Ganja Gourmet does offer customers a ride home if they need one. "If someone leaves my place wasted, I'm liable," Horowitz said.
Horowitz's liability worry may be short-lived. Denver's City Council is considering an ordinance banning dispensaries from allowing marijuana to be smoked or eaten on site.