GARDINER, Maine — In the basement of a former train station, the faint smell of cannabis hangs in the air. Pacing around a squeaky clean kitchen, Brooke Hebert tosses ginger snap cookie dough into a bowl of sugar. When her pastries are laced with pot, they will be sold upstairs over the counter in a medical marijuana dispensary that resembles not a pharmacy, but a cafe.

How did this baker, a former pastry chef in a swank Texas resort, end up turning cannabis-infused ingredients into prescribed medical relief for patients at the Wellness Connection of Maine?

It’s high times for the medical marijuana industry in America. Across the country, 23 states and Washington, D.C. now allow legalized doses of marijuana for residents to ameliorate pain associated with disease. In Maine, where weed has been approved for the infirm since 1999, the industry is starting to innovate.

“We are taking it to a new level for Maine,” said the connection’s director of community and education, Becky DeKeuster. “There is patient need and interests and we are responding with a new direction and commitment.”

Culinary cannabis is taking off so fast, the dispensary network created a full-time culinary position and built a state-of-the-art kitchen to increase their offerings of so-called “medibles.”

Ingesting medical cannabis in the form of cookies, brownies, caramel, Chex mix and pesto lasts longer and is processed differently in the body.

“As THC goes through the liver, there is delayed reaction where the psychoactivity can increase a notch and it has a longer-lasting effect,” said DeKeuster. “You may not feel the effect for anywhere from 30 minutes up to two hours depending on a variety of factors, and the effects last between three and in some cases up to seven or eight hours.”

When a patient inhales their medicine (vapor or smoking) the effect is immediate, which is “good for breakthrough pain like a migraine that needs immediate relief,” said DeKeuster, but can dissipate within an hour of inhalation.

Hired two months ago, Hebert bakes cannabis pastries, ingestible capsules made with coconut oil, and soon candies, for the network’s four locations across the state. The professional baker turns marijuana-infused butter and oil into palatable doses of effective treatment.

At first Hebert, kitchen operations manager, was not sure about the job.

“I was nervous about the idea of using cannabis in baking because I had not had any personal experience with it,” she said, zipping from a gleaming counter to a convection oven with a tray of hot cookies. “But after watching a documentary about the efficacy and value it has in people’s lives I was convinced that it was a good opportunity and worthwhile.”

The list of purported benefits linked to marijuana edibles is long. For cancer and HIV patients, some research shows it may dull the side effects from their treatments, working to increase appetites, alleviate symptoms of stress and even PMS. The symptoms that medibles can supposedly address are as diverse as the gourmet recipes an enterprising baker like Hebert can dream up.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse notes that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration hasn’t approved of marijuana as a medicine due to a lack of reliable evidence.

Over the past year, 50 percent of the Wellness Connection of Maine’s 8,000 members have tried medibles — a typical dose is a quarter of a cookie. The difference between consuming marijuana versus vaporizing (where marijuana is heated in a pipe) is significant due to the method of absorption. Some patients say it’s a more intense pain fighter.

The amount of THC can vary in medibles. Health experts caution that controlling the dose may be harder, leaving some users caught off guard by the potency and longer-lasting effects.

Mark Bushey, a 51-year-old former pharmaceutical rep from Augusta, started taking medibles a year ago to deal with the effects of ALS. The Wellness Connection of Maine member receives relief from muscle spasms and arm and leg pain through bites of laced mint chocolate cookies.

“Edibles don’t do a better job than vaporizing, but the effect is longer lasting,” he explained by email because his disease has advanced to the point where he can’t speak.

“I have bulbar onset ALS, so my breathing, swallowing and speech were affected first. My tongue does not function normally so eating is a long, slow and not-so-enjoyable process. Since my diagnosis I have lost over 40 pounds mainly because I wasn’t eating much.”

Adding cannabis-laced cookies to his diet has helped.

“Edibles make me hungry enough to want to eat. Since starting with edibles my weight loss has lessened,” Bushey said.

His appetite has come back and his outlook is brighter.

“Medibles have changed my life. They make me feel good mentally. Feeling good at this point of the disease is a big thing,” he said.

Hebert is experimenting with umpteen recipes, the basis of which is marijuana-infused butter or oil. A baker’s mix, an assortment of cannabis plant matter, goes into a kettle with butter, and soaks and simmers for two hours. She squeezes the butter from the plant matter.

“Managing the potency is the issue. Some are so sensitive to it, they can only eat a small amount. It affects people so drastically different,” said Hebert.

For many patients, getting a better night’s sleep is the ultimate outcome.

“That’s something we hear a lot. Thank you, for the first time in 10 months … two years, I got a full night sleep where I wasn’t tossing and turning,” said DeKeuster. “That’s a beautiful thing to hear.”

Kathleen Pierce

A lifelong journalist with a deep curiosity for what's next. Interested in food, culture, trends and the thrill of a good scoop. BDN features reporter based in Portland since 2013.