No pot on this table: Boston warns restaurants over marijuana-infused meals
Espresso-crusted lamb chops topped with salsa verde. Sweet and spicy smoked chicken. Lobster Rangoons with caviar.
The menus boast courses that might make your mouth water — and your head buzz.
They’re all examples of dinners featuring cannabis-infused dishes, part of a new fast-expanding but legally murky business that merges food and marijuana.
But cannabis-infused dinners, in which roving professional chefs host semiprivate, upscale dinners whose courses gradually get diners high, are being targeted by Boston officials who say they’re illegal.
Following claims that two diners became ill after eating at a cannabis-infused dinner, the Boston Licensing Board is warning restaurants and bars in the city that if they host the meals they risk losing their food and alcohol licenses.
The unregulated events could make patrons sick, officials said.
“At this time, marijuana-derived food additives have not been approved by the FDA and as such cannot be legally infused into food being sold to the public,” Samantha Ormsby, a spokeswoman for Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, said in a statement.
Dinner at Mary’s — an infused meal service run by chef Sam Kanter that recently featured the lamb chop dish — asks guests for a “suggested donation” to cover the cost of the meal and “gifts” the marijuana used in the food. The company’s events aren’t advertised; they’re open only to members of its mailing list, and the exact location of the meal isn’t revealed until the last moment.
The idea is to keep a low profile and also be able to argue that the events are essentially private.
Each dish served by companies such as Kanter’s contains small amounts of marijuana concentrate, with courses staggered and dosed strategically. Some concentrates are clear and mostly tasteless, while others retain more of the plant and have an amber color and a taste that ran range from earthy to lemony to piney. Guests can request higher or lower overall doses depending on their experience and tolerance.
Officials said the advisory was issued after a tip from a person who claimed that two acquaintances became sick after eating a meal prepared by Dinner at Mary’s. But Kanter said she never received any complaints. She said members of Walsh’s administration could not provide any documentation of the tip. Still, for now, she won’t host dinners in Boston.
“There’s no proof or any basis” for the complaint, Kanter said. “It’s super frustrating, because the first we heard about it was in the press. If they’re really concerned about public safety, why weren’t we notified?”
While it is legal in Massachusetts for individuals to give small amounts of cannabis to one another, advertising such gifts is illegal, as are unregulated transactions involving money or other items and services of value. Similarly, it’s legal to consume the drug in private, but not in public. And the Cannabis Control Commission has yet to issue so-called social consumption licenses that would let businesses sell pot and pot-infused products for use on site.
Kanter prefers to host dinners in restaurants, since they have professional kitchens and alcohol licenses. (The restaurants, usually owned by friends of Kanter, are closed to the public during her invitation-only marijuana dinners.)
Others in the business, however, won’t serve infused meals in any space that could be considered public, including even restaurants that are closed for a private event. They consider the legal risks too high, and instead operate after-hours in nonfood businesses that don’t have licenses, or in private residences.
“We’ve always stayed away from restaurants,” said Joseph Nelson, a caterer and cofounder of Mass Cannabis Chefs, which hosts infused dinners. “Every lawyer I talked to over the years said it wasn’t OK, and we don’t break laws — we follow them as written, as they are today.”
Nelson’s business, which serves about 40 diners each month, forgoes the “suggested donation” framework. Instead, he charges the same for servings with and without marijuana, while insisting saying the drug marijuana is a legal, unadvertised gift.
As with Dinner at Mary’s, Nelson added, Mass Cannabis Chefs adjusts the dose of cannabis in its meals according to the experience and desires of each guest.
“We’re not out here trying to hurt people,” Nelson said. “All our concentrates are lab-tested, and we do the math and plot out how much to put in each course. . . . I do everything in my power to only give people what’s comfortable for them.”
Several lawyers who represent marijuana businesses said Boston’s stance on the issue is probably legally correct — at least under the current regulations. They said claims by operators about the legality of donations and gifts are a flimsy shield against a possible crackdown.
“As soon as dollars exchange hands, it’s just too risky,” said Blake Mensing, an attorney who represents cannabis firms. “Frankly, I don’t see much ambiguity. Obviously, this advisory is intended to chill licensed restaurants from hosting these events, and I think it will.”
The city insists infused dinners are strictly forbidden, citing the lack of social consumption licenses from the commission and a state prohibition on “sham” gifting transactions.
Boston officials also argued that marijuana under federal law is an unauthorized “food additive,” meaning any dish containing it would be considered “adulterated.”
The move by Boston authorities came as the Cannabis Control Commission Thursday voted 3-2 to authorize a pilot program for social consumption businesses. Under the proposal, a handful of municipalities would be allowed to host cannabis cafes and also issue one-day event licenses approved by the agency. The commission needs the Legislature to amend the state marijuana law to allow the pilot to proceed.
It’s unclear whether the commission’s social consumption program would allow cannabis-infused dinners.
Boston officials have said the city will not participate in the pilot program, which drew incredulity from Nelson and other proponents, who said it would be an opportunity to generate tax revenue and encourage cannabis tourism in the capital of the first state on the East Coast to legalize marijuana.
“People fly into Logan [Airport] all the time and call me looking for something weed-related to do,” Nelson said. “I shouldn’t have to tell them no. . . . . I don’t understand why they’re dragging their feet on it — alcohol is taxed and served on practically every corner. It doesn’t make sense not to have a similar thing for cannabis.”