Scott Van Rixel's career in food started the day following his 12th birthday, with a dishwashing job at a Serbian fish fryery. "My mom and my dad would pick me up Friday night and make me strip down to my underwear outside because I stunk so bad of fish," he recalls. "It was miserable, but I loved it."
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Since that first title of dishwasher, Van Rixel has collected a few more for his résumé, including European certified chef de cuisine and master chocolatier. His primary business, Chocolate Cartel, started as an outdoor confection stand on Taos Plaza. Eight years and a move to Albuquerque later, his chocolates are shipped all over the world, to places as far as Japan and the Middle East.
Van Rixel, who seems to have a knack for entrepreneurship, began pursuing another ambition this March in light of recent legislative shifts. He's developing medical marijuana chocolates that he hopes to distribute in California and,eventually, New Mexico.
Van Rixel's partner in the project is Robert Martin, a 25-year veteran of the food industry with a Ph.D. in botany. Martin, who's done research and development for companies like Dreyer's, Coca-Cola and Kraft, started a nonprofit earlier this year called Collective Wellness in California. Part of the purpose of the organization is to get rules passed that would help oversee the production and distribution of medical cannabis so patients are guaranteed quality, safe medication. It aims to do so by tracking the drug from where it's grown to the patient who ingests it, as well as testing different strains of medical cannabis to ensure that no harmful biological or chemical residues end up in patients' bodies or in the environment. Collective Wellness would like to have a production facility, testing and research facility, kitchen (where Van Rixel's chocolates would be made), and dispensary.
The project isn't simple because the policies governing the distribution of medical marijuana aren't simple, but that's part of what Van Rixel wants to change.
As it stands, the only real rule that governs medical marijuana in California is how much of it a patient can get at one time (an ounce). But Van Rixel wants to "legitimize" medical cannabis by creating rules that oversee how it's made, where it's made and how it's tracked. "Because there is no oversight, it's very haphazardly being run," he says. "And so even though it's out of the public eye, it's under a lot of scrutiny because it's still being run like two 8-year-olds with a lemonade stand."
With the laws as they are, edible medical marijuana products aren't legally sanctioned in California, but Martin, who lives in San Ramon, Calif., is working with government officials in Oakland to get an ordinance passed that would change that. If it comes to fruition, Martin and Van Rixel could get a permit to rent or build a facility for the production of the chocolates.
The goal of the business would be to provide a professional, reliable product that ensures that every time a patient bites into a cannabis-laced chocolate, the effect will be the same. "Right now, if Joe Blow buys a brownie," says Van Rixel, "he doesn't really know what he's getting."
Why Eating Is Better Than Smoking
The hypothetical Mrs. Johnson is sitting at a luncheon with her girlfriends. "She's got glaucoma, cancer, chronic pain," Van Rixel explains. "It's not really OK for her to light up a joint and smoke it." But she can eat a piece of chocolate.
As Van Rixel will attest, there are plenty of qualities that separate smoking marijuana from eating marijuana, but one of the most significant is public perception. One purpose behind medical cannabis is comfort—dissolving pain in those who are hard-pressed to find relief—and part of that equation, he says, should be providing people with delivery methods that are comfortable to them as well.
It’s also a matter of practicality. Many people who experience chronic pain and who are eligible for medical marijuana also suffer from loss of appetite, such as patients with AIDS or cancer. Getting a dosage of marijuana from chocolate helps whet appetites, says Van Rixel, and it also helps keep pounds on those who are prone to lose them.
Van Rixel plans to make about a dozen varieties of medical marijuana chocolates, each tailored to serve a different type of patient—those battling cancer, or chronic muscle pain, or even post-traumatic stress. Part of that plan includes working with a doctor of Oriental medicine to come up with other symptom-specific ingredients that will be included in the candies, such as goji berries, hemp seed or bee pollen. Plus, chocolate itself has proven antioxidant properties. A menu of chocolate confections has not been decided, but Van Rixel won’t be delving into “pot brownie” territory. Think truffles.
Although it's too early to know the exact amounts, he estimates that two pieces of chocolate will be equal in efficacy to an average joint that's dispensed in California (which holds between a half and a whole gram). Two pieces of chocolate should be available for about $5.
When marijuana is smoked, Van Rixel says, a large amount of its THC—or tetrahydrocannabinol, the chemical in marijuana that causes intoxication and pain relief—is destroyed. When it's eaten, the THC stays intact. In addition, he says the way THC is metabolized in the body when it's eaten makes it last longer. In short, eating marijuana instead of smoking it gives patients more bang for their buck.
Van Rixel has a tendency to flare up a little himself. He enthusiastically touts the benefits not just of chocolate but of marijuana and hemp, citing how easily and robustly it grows, its many nonconsumable uses, and the fact that it enriches the soil it grows in. "If people want to know what would save our country from the economic disaster we're now in: hemp," he says.
Across State Lines
Van Rixel's chocolate plan still isn't a sure thing, although both he and Martin are hopeful. Martin estimates the ordinance that would allow their project will pass in Oakland by Spring 2010. But it would be much longer before Van Rixel's curative desserts could be distributed in New Mexico.
Federal entities regulate interstate commerce, which means under those circumstances, federal laws supersede state laws. Therefore, when it comes to medical marijuana, the plant can only be dispensed in the same state in which it's manufactured. And so in order for Van Rixel's chocolates to be distributed here, he would have to build a separate facility to make them. And that’s a difficult venture, considering the money it would take. But he also says that’s beside the point.
The biggest payoff, he says, would be helping people. "That would pay me far more than any check anybody could give me. You always want to say you want to leave a legacy, right? At the end of the day, if people remember you because you helped people, that's more important."
By Christie Chisholm
November 12-18, 2009
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Chocolatier aims to make medical marijuana go down easy