Vanessa Amador has created a niche business in New Jersey that's designed to woo an exclusive and often-misunderstood clientele.
Though others may want to attend the unique cooking classes offered by Cannabi Kitchen in Turnersville, Gloucester County, only those who flash a photo ID issued by the state's tightly regulated medical-marijuana program will be allowed in.
The curriculum: how to make cannabis-infused sweets, including banana walnut muffins, creamy chocolate candies shaped like marijuana leaves, and even green gummy bears and worms. More items -- such as smoothies -- could be added.
The students are required to bring one ingredient -- one-eighth of an ounce of cannabis from one of New Jersey's five licensed dispensaries, and it must be inside a container with an unbroken seal. Whether the strain is Blueberry Kush, AC-DC, or something else is up to the student.
"The classes are strictly for medical-marijuana patients -- definitely not for people who might want to walk in," said Amador, during an interview last week at the New Jersey Alternative Medicine clinic in Turnersville, where she is an office manager. The clinic, which will host some of the classes starting in May, is run by Andrew Medvedovsky, a neurologist who specializes in pain management.
Medvedovsky writes recommendations for patients who suffer from one of the dozen or so medical ailments that qualify them to use marijuana in New Jersey and who meet the program criteria. Many suffer from severe muscle spasms and neurological disorders.
He said numerous patients have told him marijuana has greatly helped alleviate pain but they are embarrassed by the "smell of marijuana" and the stigma attached to it. Consuming edibles helps these patients get the medicine they need without worrying about the taboos, he said.
Medvedovsky serves on the board of New Jersey Cannabusiness Association and said he is not aware of any similar classes in New Jersey for patients who want edibles.
Payton Curry, an Arizona-based chef and entrepreneur, tours the country and teaches medical-marijuana patients about the health benefits of "cannabis cuisine." Trained at New York's Culinary Institute of America, Curry applauds the concept of the New Jersey classes because they will introduce more people to edibles and help them "overcome their fears" of trying out these products.
But Curry said he has some concerns because the New Jersey patients won't know the potency of the products, which won't be tested before they are consumed. "Without knowing the potency, there's zero reliability," he said.
The New Jersey Department of Health, which regulates medical marijuana, has long taken a hands-off approach, telling patients they are free to create edibles with the raw cannabis that is sold. Patients have requested lab testing for the edibles they make in their homes, but the DOH has not made this available to them and no labs are available to do this.
Amador said the patients at her classes can start out by consuming a small amount of the cannabis products to see the effects.
She founded Cannabi Kitchen in January and held the first class in February at the In the Kitchen Cooking School in Haddonfield after patients at the clinic kept asking about making their own edibles. There were 28 students.
"In Colorado, patients can buy edibles if they want, but patients here can't do that. There was a need for these classes," Amador said, adding that the cost of the Turnersville class is $50 for three hours of instruction. She expects about 20 students per class and hopes to hold the sessions monthly.
Unlike many states with medical-marijuana programs, New Jersey has not approved edibles for sale at the dispensaries.
In 2013, Gov. Christie signed a bill to lift the ban, but he has been reluctant to expand the medical-marijuana program and his administration has rejected the applications submitted by dispensaries that wanted to manufacture edible products.
Pennsylvania, which will implement its medical-marijuana program next year, takes a different approach, and will allow only pills, oils, and topical forms to be sold to patients.
Barbara Merrifield, a medical-marijuana patient who learned how to turn cannabis into oils by watching YouTube videos, and by trial and error, will teach the next round of classes at Cannabi Kitchen. She said the oils can be stirred into the batter of any delicacy that patients might crave.
A grandmother and a former Toys R Us manager, Merrifield uses cannabis to control her epilepsy. For the last year she has held informal cooking demonstrations at her home in Somers Point to teach other patients, usually one at a time. She charges $25.
Merrifield's demonstrations have become a business, South Jersey Medical Essentials, registered with Atlantic County. She said she also checks patients' medical-marijuana cards before each session.
For the Turnersville cooking classes, she said, she teaches students how to heat the marijuana in a pressure cooker, remove it, add Everclear alcohol, and then stir the concoction on a stove until the alcohol burns off. (Normally, the longer the cooking process, the more potent it will become.) The oil that is produced will be put into a syringe and added to a bowl. "You can use Jiffy Mix, throw in some walnuts, and voilà, you will have cannabis muffins," Merrifield said.
The small quantity of marijuana that patients will bring to the Cannabi Kitchen will produce about seven mini muffins, she said. Patients can try a little at a time and then wait two or more hours to see what the full effect may be before deciding how much they can tolerate, she said.
Troy Fitzpatrick, who works as a patient educator at Medvedovsky's clinic, said he has taught many elderly patients how to use vaporizers so they don't have to smoke cannabis. "It's so much better for them to use a vaporizer," he said. Edibles offer them another option, he said.
Fitzpatrick became a medical-marijuana patient a year ago after he was diagnosed with severe muscle spasms and back pain. Cannabis helped him get off heavy doses of opiates including oxycodone, he said. "I was in such pain that I used to hide in my basement," he said.
Fitzpatrick attended Cannabi Kitchen's first class in Haddonfield a few months ago and made white chocolate cupcakes, lollipops, and candies in the shape of the tongue-and-lips logo featured on the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers album. "People bonded and were very glad to come," he said.
Kathy Gold, the founder of the In the Kitchen Cooking School, said that when Cannabi Kitchen first called to ask about leasing her space, she thought it was a prank call. But then, she said, "my first question, of course, was legalities, and I researched it and it was absolutely fine."
Gold said that she was "intrigued by the whole thing" and amazed at how the patients were taught to cook some brand-new products.
"As far as I know, it hadn't been done before," Gold said. "But it may be that people just want to keep quiet about it and it's not open to the public."