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Medical marijuana patients enjoy pot luck at 8 Rivers

The first time I cooked pot food was my freshman year in high school. Two friends and I pooled our money, bought a quarter bag of Texas dirt weed and some instant brownie mix, and headed to an adult-free house with an open kitchen. After putting aside enough pot for a joint to smoke while the brownies baked, we dumped the rest of the hand-ground shwag (along with a few stems and seeds, I'm sure) into the batter and threw it in the oven. The result — in addition to stinking up my friend's parents' house with a chocolate-skunky aroma for the next day or so — was the most gritty, nasty brownie I had ever seen.

I still ate it, though. And despite having to pick plant matter from my teeth, I enjoyed every bit of its lingering effects.

Scott Durrah knows that my experience isn't uncommon, and so he's prepared to show — one class at a time — that cooking with ganja can be both medicating and delicious.

8 Rivers executive chef Scott Durrah knows how to handle his pot and pans.
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8 Rivers executive chef Scott Durrah knows how to handle his pot and pans.

Durrah and his wife, Wanda James, are co-owners of 8 Rivers, a casual, modern Caribbean eatery in LoDo — the couple's fourth restaurant and the third location for 8 Rivers, which in October celebrated its first anniversary at 1550 Blake Street. The restaurant not only serves up island fare, but also serves as a base for Durrah and James's political activities; they've hosted fundraisers there for Barack Obama, Bill Ritter, John Hickenlooper, Nancy Pelosi and Jared Polis, whose 2008 campaign for Congress was run by James. And in December, in a move that surprised some of their political friends but made sense to anyone who knew their passion for pot, they opened the Apothecary of Colorado, a dispensary at 1730 Blake that provides farm-grown herb to hundreds of patients.

This past weekend, they combined all their interests into the first Creative Cooking With Cannabis class, which is designed to show patients how they can medicate with food that's far more creative than cookies and Rice Krispies treats.

"First of all, not everyone is a gourmet chef," Durrah says. "People coming in here aren't learning how to cook, but they want to learn how to take what they know with cooking and medicate. So we thought, 'Let's look in the refrigerators of your average person and see how many things we can help them replace with butters, preservatives, sweeteners and ways to introduce the THC.' But for those who want to have a little more fun, I'll be like Emeril and kick it up a notch."

The cooking classes are a natural extension of the dispensary's mission, James notes. Because many patients are older and don't always want to smoke pot, they take advantage of edibles for their ailments. "To be able to infuse something as pure as the marijuana plant into the things we are eating and have it taste good is a process of being able to heal your body, spirit, mind and soul at a holistic level," she says. "But you can only have so many brownies each week."

And, Durrah adds, because people can't always afford pre-made edibles or may have special dietary needs, the class is a way for them to learn the basics of ganja cooking for themselves. Apothecary of Colorado plans to continue offering the classes monthly at 8 Rivers, eventually moving into more detailed menus, as well as teaching sessions on how to prepare oils and butter at home.

In advance of Saturday's class, my girlfriend and I head to 8 Rivers to fully experience another Durrah passion: jerk chicken and pork. The restaurant has a hip, mellow mood, with an earthy paint scheme, low lighting, a portrait of Bob Marley in the entry, a fireplace to the side and two guitars propped against the wall. A good Friday-night crowd has gathered, chilling to the Rasta-infused vibe.

Durrah and James were up most of the night, unable to sleep after Denver police raided their massive grow warehouse that supplies Apothecary of Colorado. But while most people in their situation would still be shaking, James and Durrah are all smiles. Once the paperwork was sorted out — with their attorney present, of course — the cops commended them on the professionalism of their operation, James says. "We were laughing about it by this morning, but it was a pretty crazy night," she tells us as she seats us.

Right now, though, the focus is not on pot, but rum. The bar at 8 Rivers has the city's largest selection, James says.

I'm a whiskey man, and have always associated the sugary buzz of rum with fruity boat drinks. I probably would have continued thinking this, too, without James's run-down of the rum roster that guides us to a Cuban sipping rum, Vizcaya VXOP. Because it's aged in bourbon casks, the rum has the distinct "sweater on the inside" feeling and the initial taste of whiskey, but it calms quickly to a sweet but tobaccoish flavor while still packing a strong punch.

As we sip from our snifters, Durrah brings out a sample of the sativa onion soup he'll be making for class the next day. A concoction created by his sous chef, Jamie Gulick, the soup is a very light blend of ginger, lemon, garlic and onions in a vegetable and chicken broth, but because of the added ganja butter and ganja olive oil, it has a rich and earthy-sweet herb taste.

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