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Do Alaska cannabis regulations allow for chefs to get in the game?

  • Author: Scott Woodham
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 3, 2015

Shawn, a chef (and expert punster), wonders whether Alaska cannabis regulators have considered his industry as they're setting the initial boundaries of the legal market.

"I would like to know how they plan to address edibles and establishments that sell them. Are they going to allow a restaurant or dinner club that is an adult atmosphere like a bar, 21 and over, to serve cannabis-infused foods? I'm a chef and I think that we should have opportunity to stake our claim in this 'budding' marijuana industry."

The regulation process is ongoing and regulators are still seeking public input on the draft rules issued so far, so things are a bit fluid at the moment. But it appears that no, Alaska's current draft regulations don't take into account the range of likely scenarios involving chefs and the things they might use cannabis for. But that's not unusual among legalized states. Restaurants haven't yet been able to go for broke without risk or gray area anywhere in the US.

Read more Highly Informed: Seeking answers to Alaska's cannabis questions

And for folks who don't know, a bit of a revolution is taking shape when it comes to cannabis and food. Professional cooks and amateurs are finding ways to use cannabis to wow guests in ways that go far beyond the stereotypical brownies. Foie gras in hash jus, anyone? Vapor-infused raspberry-coulis-filled donut? Hamachi "shashimi" with smoked avocado and cannabis dressing?

And those are just some samples from an eight-course dinner in Amsterdam detailed by The Guardian this month. Closer to home, efforts are ongoing in the U.S. to allow such possibilities, but it's not a widespread reality yet. Vice's food channel "Munchies" reported in June about a Colorado food events company, and others, hoping to start what could eventually become a new aspect to the legal industry -- if, that is, Denver voters pass an upcoming ballot initiative to allow restricted public use of cannabis. There is still controversy there about easing restrictions on public consumption.

In Alaska, the regulators have been warning social clubs operating now, which is consistent with regulators' interpretation that such clubs are equivalent to alcohol-oriented BYOB "bottle clubs," which are barred. But those rules don't clearly apply to a chef wanting to make and serve a cannabis-infused dish to a diner. Plus, an existing bar or restaurant isn't a social club, exactly, and the statutes passed as Ballot Measure 2 still bar public use. The Marijuana Control Board has forwarded a request to the Legislature to expand the scope to allow licensing and regulation of social clubs. If lawmakers follow suit, it would seem reasonable to think that regulations could eventually create circumstances to control collaborations with chefs and such clubs.

Aside from the club and public consumption angle, currently proposed regulations seem to contain a few major obstacles to Shawn's idea. But remember, this is a process, and who knows where we'll end up. Besides, without specifics, Shawn could be talking instead about catering a private party for adults at someone's home, using their own home-grown cannabis and bringing his own ingredients. And that would be a situation much different from the public one discussed here.

Chief among those obstacles is that there is no license type being considered that would cover such a scenario, and the key is on-premise consumption. Even if a restaurant did manage to get a license as they're currently proposed, the licenses for manufacturing cannabis products prohibit direct sales to customers, and the rules for retail shop licenses don't allow on-premise consumption. For that matter, manufacturing facilities are precluded from making "adulterated food and drink" or anything that "resembles any familiar food or drink item including candy," and can't operate in "a location that is a retail or wholesale food establishment."

The stated goal in the regulation of adulterated food and drink is to avoid the possibility that children would confuse a packaged marijuana product for something they think is safe for them, or that a cannabis product could be confused with its square counterpart. Proposed definitions have distinguished "edible marijuana products" from "adulterated food or drink," but the way they read, it appears that a regular, non-infused restaurant-made cheesecake, for instance, drizzled with infused syrup could potentially fit into both categories. That potential hang-up is moot at this point, however.

There are other reasons, but just for those above, it appears to me that the regulations allowing edible marijuana products have been conceived only for products manufactured and packaged for individual sale, or those that imitate or resemble other food products that could be accidentally confused by children as something safe for their consumption. Adult-type sit-down food with tablecloths, napkins, candlelight and jazz quartet seems not to fit anywhere in the proposed regs. But that's not to say it never will.

If the draft rules go through the way they are now, a change will have to happen to allow chefs to get into the game, especially serious chefs with a public venue looking to make a name for themselves and their establishment at the forefront of whatever cannabis cuisine movement is afoot. And expecting such change is possible isn't unreasonable, in my opinion.

Have a question about marijuana news or culture in Alaska? Send it to cannabis-north@alaskadispatch.com with "Highly Informed" in the subject line.

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