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Meet Brandon, a Medical Marijuana Edibles Expert in LA

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Welcome to A Shift With. Here we will bypass the famous chefs, the oft-interviewed restaurateurs and GMs and try to shine a light on the individuals in the food industry who perform their duties outside of the public eye.

Elizabeth Daniels, 3/25

Who hasn't smelled weed wafting from a car, building or street corner in LA? It defines California as much as the ocean surf, snow-tipped mountains and Prop 8. But there's a whole business of food production involving weed that exists mostly in the dark. Edibles are food products made by infusing medical marijuana into oil, butter or any other fat. Most people have heard of pot brownies; what people haven't heard of is the vocation occupied by consultant Brandon Parham.

How did you get started with edibles in LA? The initial interest in plants came from an aunt who used to garden in her backyard. And then she'd cook with chiles and everything she was growing. And I started helping her and noticing how different plants reacted in different foods and using different cooking methods.

So, then I got a B.S. in plant sciences with an emphasis in controlled environment agriculture — it's a botanist degree. But that's really too general of a term. My specialization is in greenhouses, growth chambers, all kinds of indoor growing applications. It's sometimes called advanced hydroponics. I worked with NASA right out of college on a research project. I also worked with Boeing before going out on my own.

What's the name of your company? I'm the owner and founder of Urban Cultivation. I'm an agriculture consultant now.

What does this mean exactly? What that means is that I design, set-up and help with optimizing of crop scheduling, crop maintenance, staff and labor training. When it's a corporate client, I'm involved in R&D a lot of the time too. If they're trying to design a new trimmer, for example, they know what they need the machine to do, but they don't know how plants will react to it, or how to optimize it for different plates, so they hire someone like me. I also help with harvesting and host production. I used to make the edibles myself, but now I facilitate the transfer of flower and trim to bakers around town. Then, I facilitate the donation of edibles to collectives and their clinics.

So you don't really bake much yourself? I'm the contact between the growers and clinics, which is kind of complicated. Some clinics "sell" trim on consignment to bakers who then "donate" edibles and concentrates back to the clinic. Then, the clinic asks customers for a donation for edibles because technically you can't sell edibles. It's a big circular relationship and my part in it now is to connect everyone and make sure the bigger bakers have enough trim to work with. Getting rid of the trim used to be a hassle. You can't just throw it in the trash. So I help with this part because I know bakers and clinics. The only reason I've delegated baking is that I'm very busy with my business.

Do you only work with marijuana? By no means am I limited to medical marijuana. It's just where the money is. I also work for basil producers, orchards, any fruit or vegetable farmer around. But for any career, you go where the money is, right? In agriculture, you go with the money crop, and in California, that's weed. It's mainly flower, medical marijuana flower and edibles. Flower concentrates are big too. The reason these alternative forms of weed are big is that they don't come with the usual stereotype of being a stoner.

Is there still a stereotype? Even in California? Oh yeah. There's preconceived notions of people that smoke pot. So edibles are becoming more and more popular. The 65 and up community is a growing consumer base. They may have smoked it when they were younger and now they just want to get away from the health effects of the actual smoke. Working professionals also go for edibles. You'd be surprised how many lawyers and doctors eat it. The stereotype of smoking it is Cheech and Chong. They'll keep candy in their purse for a hit throughout the day or they'll have a brownie or hummus. You can make an edible out of anything that has oil in it, which is great for people that have problems with anxiety or pain, sleep or insomnia. It's also a great alternative to pain medications because edibles don't hurt your liver.

What other items have you helped produce? Vegan products are a niche. They used to be huge, and they're still big now. The common products are brownies and chocolate chip cookies. But for bakers today, in order to make a good living, we have to do something different. Once you understand the chemistry of how it works ... you simply take a recipe and substitute the animal fats for vegetable fats — corn oil, coconut oil. That was just a matter of trial and error. So now there are hummus, sauces, salad dressings. There's another fringe group of people that are concerned about their health. If you're a health nut, you don't want to smoke, but you want to ingest it. So salad dressing is a healthy option. But you don't have to do that even, realistically, clinics sell it in pill form. You can just take a glycerine pill. But that's not much fun, the edibles are much more fun.

What else can you find on the edibles market now? Baguettes, croissants, eclairs, little cupcakes. That's all marketing to put yourself out there. I've hooked up cooperatives that supply large groups of clinics. The vegan thing was like wildfire for awhile. But there are even more complicated edibles. There's a whole line of fancy, boutique type pastries are out there. Wedding cakes are on the up and up, definitely growing in popularity. Weddings are already kind of an adult thing. So that's popular, having a wedding cake and then, sort of behind it or on another table, having your edibles wedding cake for the people that know.

Is there a lot of money in making edibles? No, there's very little money in it. It's all sold to clinics under consignment. If you make a product and it doesn't sell, you're out of luck. If you do something special, you have a better chance. That's where all the specialization comes from, the hummus, salad dressings, fine pastries all do well. But to do this legally, it's hard. Most of these bakers are operating under a business license for non-profits, a 5013C, because their sales are all donation-based. Because there's limited regulation — it's the grey market. It's not the black market, there's just not well-defined laws in place for this.

How much do the edibles generally sell for? Well, let's talk about a sheet of brownies. A 2 x 2 inch square, the strong ones, they can sell for $8 - $10 per brownie. The clinic gets half that, they always get half. Cookies go for $5. Marshmallow cookies, Trix, or whatever kind of cereal are all about the same, but there's not as much demand for them. But then the bigger stuff gets better returns. Cakes go for hundreds of dollars. Regular wedding cakes start at $3K, so imagine the price of the special cake. A one layer small groom's cake is at least $1K and might only feed 10 people.

Are there any big producers that dominate the market? Yes, as with any business. Bang Chocolates is sort of like the industrial standard in edibles. It's just like M&M Mars. They're uniform, done on a large scale. They're a competitor and are very successful. But something I remind bakers is that since there are no standards, they have to be careful. Bang Chocolates might label something with a certain strength or dose but there's no standard and really loose regulation on that.

How do people get into baking edibles? It helps to know a grower and a cooperative of clinics. Part the problem is that you have to have a kitchen up to code. So there are kitchens that you can rent, but because of the stigma, it's often hard to find a landlord that will rent to you if you're making edibles. The people that are making the higher end stuff need the fancy ovens and big equipment though. I think the stigma is holding up the creativity of the industry. People aren't resorting to moonshining necessarily, but they aren't able to reach their potential because of the stigma.

If you want to be a grower, you always have an outlet for your trim and flower. As a baker, you need a constant supply of quality trim. You can't just buy from the new product from some guy. They might be using inorganic pesticides. You need a level of trust. Or if there was fungus on the plants... there's a lot to consider.

How much pot do you move in an average month? It varies... Let's say about 100 pounds a month? Sometimes more. Which is a lot of brownies. I don't know how many, but hundreds.

Do you have any cooking techniques you'd care to share? Uh, well, I don't really want to give anything away, but it's really simple to do at home. Buy a brownie mix, any mix from the store. Mix the oil with medicine. Use that oil.

Do you get busier before Coachella? The bakers are generally focused on making quotas for their clinics. Sometimes they're making 150 brownies per week, depending upon the size of your kitchen and ovens. Coachella doesn't specifically increases quotas, but clinics may increase demands, yes.

What is the craziest thing you've made? Any wacky special orders from regulars? Someone orders gallons of vinaigrette at a time. Chefs buy from us when they're asked to cook entire meals out of it. That can get crazy really fast...