The cocktail arrived at the table declaring itself something different.
It was Negroni Week in Orange County — when some of the area's best mixologists create spins on the classic mixture of gin, vermouth and Campari, donating a portion of sales proceeds to a range of charitable causes — and I was sitting on the luxe patio at vegan fine-dining restaurant Gratitude in Newport Beach about to legally ingest a mood–altering compound found in marijuana plants.
A Negroni at heart but with an educational lilt, Gratitude's beverage director Jason Eisner crafted his so-called Stoney Negroni with gin, Carpano Antica vermouth, Contratto (in lieu of Campari), Port wine and cannabidiol, one of the hundreds of active compounds found in the cannabis plant.
The special ingredient could be seen floating in oily circles on the top of the drink; an orange peel placed across the top of the glass was stamped in edible food dye: "puff puff pass."
Unlike its more popular and well-known cousin tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol, more commonly called CBD, is the second most common compound in marijuana plants. Its non-psychoactive properties won't get you high in the sense that an experimental high schooler might hope, but decades of independent research has shown it to have many medical benefits, including mood stabilization, anti-anxiety, anti-psychotic and anti-epileptic qualities, and pain control. Unlike opioids, it's also relatively safe to mix with a drink or two.
"It's certainly better than Xanax," says Aury Holtzman, a doctor who ran his own private practice for 20 years and now does medical marijuana evaluations out of his Huntington Beach office. "In addition, CBD will decrease the psychoactive effect of THC. CBD is like alcohol; it's a drug. It'll drug you but it won't make you high."
CBD is consumable in all the same ways as THC, including topically with a patch and through inhalation — smoking or vaporizing — and edibles, where the compound is absorbed into oils or tinctures that are infused into food and drinks.
Until recently, most products in the market that contain CBD, like THC, have required a prescription to purchase, keeping the compound mostly out of the public eye. However, since the passage of the 2014 Federal Farm Bill, which allows U.S. cultivation of industrial hemp, production of high-CBD, low-THC plants has increased, pushing many CBD products into the legal arena.
All this rests in the government's confusing definition of marijuana versus hemp. Marijuana and hemp are essentially the same plant (CBD naturally occurs in both), but it's the mature stalks — which naturally contain less than 0.3% THC — that are not included on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's definition of marijuana as part of its listing as a Schedule 1 drug. The health and wellness community has been utilizing this gray area for years to sell stalk-obtained CBD products over the counter at places like Lassen's, Sprouts and Mother's Market.
"The demand for CBD as an isolated compound grew out of the fact that CBD is a naturally occurring element in hemp, and hemp could only be imported into the U.S. before the 2014 Farm Bill was passed," says Ryan Lewis, vice president of global sales for Folium Biosciences, currently the largest bulk wholesaler of American-made medicinal CBD in the United States.
The company's proprietary strain of high-CBD cannabis naturally produces less than 0.3% THC, so it could register it as industrial hemp.
"But in reality," Lewis says, "it is actually medicinal hemp since the genetics of our strain is more similar to a medical cannabis plant than an industrial hemp plant, which is really used for making textiles and other materials versus medicine."
Eisner's line of three CBD oil-infused cocktails, which are also available at Gratitude's sister restaurant, Gracias Madre in West Hollywood, are the first CBD-infused cocktails of their kind to be legally sold.
And the CBD-infused food and drinks available to the public keep on coming. A few weeks ago at the LA Food Fest, modern cannabis culture magazine Merry Jane debuted a collaboration with New York-based ice cream company Mikey Likes It. The pistachio-flavored ice cream was created using Folium Biosciences' Full-Spectrum CBD Oil, which includes other cannabinoids pulled from the leaves and stalk that have evolved to be synergistic with each other. According to Holtzman and Lewis, CBD works best when it is accompanied by other parts of the plant.
"Legal CBD is a great option versus THC because you can get your product out in so many places without any major hurdles," says Noah Rubin, editor in chief of Merry Jane, on why the magazine decided to co-create a CBD-infused dessert. "I think it's a great way for people to feel safe about experiencing cannabis and helps open up a dialogue about the plant, legalization and other issues that are on the forefront of the public consciousness."
Legalization is on most CBD advocates' minds this summer, as California prepares to vote on Proposition 64 in November, and so the few legally available CBD-infused foods and drinks come with an educational note attached to them as well.
CBD is a less-threatening entry point for people interested in the cannabis plant, and delivering the compound's benefits through a health-conscious dining concept like Gratitude only opens the conversation further.
In addition to Eisner's Stoney Negroni, his list of creative and delicious CBD-infused cocktails includes a Rolled Old Fashioned (Benesin mezcal anejo, bourbon, sarsaparilla syrup, bitters and CBD oil) and Sour Diesel (tequila blanco, lime juice, agave, mint, salt, CBD oil and aqua faba).
"It took a lot of experimenting on my end to make sure I wasn't doing something gimmicky," says Gratitude's Eisner. "In the medical marijuana and cannabis industry, CBD is the magic compound because when many people think of cannabis, there's still such a weird stigma attached to it and we haven't been able to have this discourse, how it applies to commerce, much less to culinary experiences."