CAMBRIDGE — At a candlelight dinner party on a Harvard Square patio one recent evening, each table setting included a plate, knife, fork — and a clear glass pipe and jars of marijuana.
After the two dozen well-dressed guests, who ranged from their early 20s to late 50s, seated themselves, John Maden stood and introduced himself as a cannabis “sommelier.” Over the next three hours, he directed the guests to smoke certain types of marijuana — with piney, citrusy, or earthy undertones — that he had picked to complement the five gourmet-chef-prepared courses.
“We’re here to really enjoy some bud,” he said.
Maden, 37, is one of a growing number of people creating their own jobs in Massachusetts’ nascent $316 million legal pot market. Among those carving out cannabis niches: hiking guides, wedding planners, lawyers, painting teachers, doctors, yoga instructors, marketers, and masseuses.
Nearly three years after voters legalized pot in the state, Maden hopes his high-end service, which that night accompanied the $165-per-person dinner — marijuana included — will help bring the newly legal product into mainstream acceptance.
“The Cheech and Chong stereotype of the average cannabis consumer is not accurate in 2019,” Maden said. “But it’s still the perception that a lot of people have in Boston.”
Maden said his Boston-based business, Buddha Som, is not his first foray into marijuana. As a high school student in Sherborn, he acknowledges, he used to sell small amounts of pot to his friends.
He hatched the idea for his new gig in January while he was hosting Airbnb guests at his East Boston apartment. His guests would ask where they could buy marijuana. After searching online, he realized there weren’t any marijuana businesses catering to tourists in the area. They existed in more established pot markets like Colorado and California.
At the Cambridge party, a semi-regular private event called Dinner at Mary’s, Maden paired the first course, a watermelon-and-habanero red snapper crudo, with an earthy marijuana strain called “Black Cherry.” The second course, a summer-squash-and-eggplant lasagna, was served with a heady herb called “Train Wreck.” Butter-poached lobster tail complemented “White Lemon.”
While dinner guests could smoke at any time, including before eating to spark “the munchies,” Maden said that to really appreciate the pairing, diners should smell the raw marijuana before they taste the food.
Unlike with wine, though, he didn’t just pair for taste, but also for the effect of the cannabis.
He wanted the guests to experience a bell curve of a high, starting out slow with a strain of pot that would relax them and make them hungrier, then slowly increasing the energy level and headiness, before returning to the lower-vibe feeling.
So how did he determine which type of pot created which feeling? In his opening talk, Maden told diners they all have the ability to sense, using their noses, what the cannabis will feel like.
“Forget everything you know about marijuana,” Maden said. He said pot industry terms “indica” and “sativa,” which are used to describe cannabis that is sedating or uplifting, respectively, are inaccurate and overly broad. The better way to tell how the marijuana will make you feel, he told them, is to smell it.
Maden instructed the guests to take deep sniffs from the jars of marijuana flower, and then feel where, on their noses or faces, they felt a slight tingle or throb.
“The higher-up smells make you feel high” — that upbeat buzz, said Maden, pointing to his upper-nose and forehead. He then gestured to his nostrils. “The low, deep smells make you feel stoned” and mellow.
The guests smelled their jars, passing them around, before packing some into their pipes and smoking them.
“How nice of them to educate us, instead of just, ‘Let’s get high, bro,’ ” said Kennedy Elsey, a local radio host. But, she said, she wasn’t sure she fully felt the tingling: “It’s like when you go to a wine tasting, and you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, I totally tasted the grassy notes.’ Yeah, no.”
Hillary King, a cannabis industry consultant, said she felt the varying sensations.
“It takes practice and mindfulness to discern the different physiological effects,” she said. “But I do think it’s real.”
Maden learned his techniques from a certification course at the Trichome Institute in Colorado that he found online.
The institute’s founder, Max Montrose, said he realized in high school that his nose could determine the different effects of cannabis plants. Using that knowledge, Montrose said, he substituted marijuana for the prescription medications he took, including painkillers, sleeping pills, and Adderall, which caused unpleasant side effects.
Montrose said his course is based on studies that suggest the nerves inside the nose can sense terpenes, a class of chemicals found in cannabis, fruit, and other plants that are thought to be responsible for psychoactive effects, aroma, and taste.
“It’s cool to be a wine expert and a beer expert, but in the world of cannabis, it’s more important to society,” Montrose said. “You can assist yourself and other people in finding the right medicine.”
The terpene-interpreting concept fascinated Sam Kanter, 32, the events planner behind Dinner at Mary’s, who has long turned to different types of cannabis to both relax and be productive.
“People put wine on this pedestal, that it’s so high-end, and then cannabis gets this reputation of being lowly,” Kanter said. “Cannabis deserves respect. People have been shamed away from it, when it could be really beneficial to their lives.”
Not everyone believes in her cause. Boston officials have warned Kanter to keep her dinners out of the city, and she said she operates in a legally gray area in the absence of state regulations for private pot events. She said she makes sure guests don’t overconsume or drive high, and her events typically don’t include alcohol.
At the dinner, Maden touched on the controversial history of drug enforcement that disproportionately affected racial minorities. He called the war on drugs “racist, pure and simple.”
But to some social justice advocates, luxury pot businesses that typically draw white and wealthier clients are yet another striking example of the color divide in cannabis.
As marijuana legalization evolves, advocates say, the state needs to prioritize clearing people’s marijuana criminal records and boosting the low number of pot businesses owned by entrepreneurs of color.
“I embrace this man; I love what [Maden] is trying to do,” said Horace Small, executive director of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods in Boston and a member of the state’s cannabis advisory board. “However, we still haven’t gotten to the foundational part of what the whole piece of [marijuana] legislation was supposed to be about, which was equity and fairness.”
In any case, Maden said, he’s not making enough money as a pot sommelier to pay his rent — a service for which he typically charges $150 per person — and so is scouting for another job in his prior field, customer service support operations.
That evening, as the party drew to a close, the guests’ giggles gave way to droopier eyelids.
“That ‘Train Wreck’ got me good,” said John Higgins, owner of Higs Tickets, who before that evening had not smoked pot in a while.
“So, do you want to go put on sweats and watch Netflix?” Elsey replied.
That suggestion appealed to a few guests around the table. They got on their phones to order Ubers and went on their mellow ways.