Uncle Herb's medical-marijuana dispensary, tucked away near pine trees in an industrial area of south Payson, has the homey feel of a country store. Red brick and wood trim accent the interior. T-shirts and other products hang in a gift area near the two bars displaying pale green cannabis buds in glass cake stands. The small commercial kitchen, visible from the bud-tending area through a large window, is modern. So is the kitchen's special helper — a six-foot-tall collection of stainless-steel canisters, flexible hoses, and gauges that the staff calls "Wall-E."
Roughly similar to models advertised for $25,000 or more on websites, Wall-E's a botanical extraction machine that can pump out hash oil all day long, converting pounds of cannabis flowers (a.k.a. buds) into ounces of dark goo loaded with THC, marijuana's main active ingredient. The super-potent paste gets added to Uncle Herb's growing takeout menu of medicinal food and drink products sold to qualified patients: ice cream push-ups, brownies, cookies, jars of honey, and other "medibles," all infused with a precisely measured amount of the concentrate.
"Once made, the edibles have a little of an earthy taste, almost like a yerba mate tea," says Kaylynn Arnold, one of the dispensary's employees. "Some people really like it."
The level of herbal taste depends on several things, including the particular strain of weed that made the paste. A popular indica variety called "cheese," for instance, "is really fruity," she says.
The extraction process is way advanced from the millennia-old traditions of hashish-making. A food-grade solvent — likely butane or carbon dioxide (staff members don't want to say) — releases resin suspended in the plant. Another cycle boils off and flushes out the solvent. As unappetizing as it sounds, the extraction method has the blessing of state inspectors in Colorado, where adults 21 and over will be able to buy marijuana, hashish, and marijuana-infused products in retails stores after January 1.
In Arizona, patients and caregivers have been legally experimenting with their own recipes since the passage of 2010's Medical Marijuana Act. Medibles made with various marijuana concentrates have been sold in state-approved dispensaries since the first one opened last November. As of this month, 72 "operational" dispensaries were listed in state records.
Medical-marijuana kitchens, which require extra regulation and bureaucratic requirements to get started, have been slower to roll out.
On a recent Friday in mid-September, Uncle Herb's ran one of only seven state-approved medical-pot kitchens. The dispensary, open for about a month, is the only one of its kind in the Gila County mountain town 90 minutes northeast of Phoenix. Owner Tiffany Young and her husband, Matt, have built something that's finally taking off after two years of hard work.
Young's in her 30s, talks fast, and has a get-it-done attitude. She's an expert in real estate short sales who used to help run her husband's family business in Alaska putting utility lines underground. The Youngs have $1.5 million of their own money invested in the dispensary and no outside investors, which Young says allows them the freedom to follow their own interests. One of these interests is making medibles, which the Youngs see as a more healthful alternative to smoking marijuana.
Her husband's family also ran an "unofficial business" in Alaska, she says, making edible medical-marijuana products for their many extended family members.
"Everyone had years and years of experience baking with medicine," she says. "We know the recipes and techniques, what works and doesn't work."
There actually was an Uncle Herb involved in the Alaska operation — he died from cancer.
The Youngs moved to Arizona after the passage of the 2010 law, ready to try their hand at operating a legitimate medical-marijuana business, with an emphasis on medibles. Food products make up half their sales.
Friday is the main cooking day at Uncle Herb's, and a warm smell of fresh-baked food fills the air. Young and Arnold are in the kitchen making brownies. One batch in a glass tray is cooking in the oven. The women stand at a counter working with brownie squares.
These aren't crude pot brownies, made by simply tossing dried, crushed marijuana into batter. There's no marijuana in the brownies themselves. The sugary frosting, though, is made with Wall-E's potent potion.
Young and Arnold coat each brownie with a tablespoon of the concentrate, then place the square in a plastic container, doing equations on paper after each one is completed. They know how much each brownie weighs, how much of the weight is from the cannabis extract, and how many milligrams of THC are in each. Some will have 180 milligrams, others as low as 60 milligrams. Rigorous testing of the concentrate and marijuana ensures proper potency and purity.
Without such careful measurements, the potency and health benefits of each pot-infused marijuana product — whether brownie, cookie, or drink — would be uncertain. That is, there'd be no reliable way to tell whether the product contained too little or too much THC. To establish a high level of professionalism, the Youngs are taking a more scientific approach to medibles than state law requires.