Jennifer Woods looked stunned when she peered into the oven.
There were two cookie trays filled with marijuana buds that were browning ever so slowly.
"Wait, how do you know which one is mine?" she nervously asked the instructor, Brian Valay.
"The one on top," he replied, smiling.
Woods' moment of concern was understandable -- medical marijuana in New Jersey costs $400 to $500 an ounce, depending on the strain and the various discounts the state's five dispensaries offer.
Woods, 44, who lives in Point Pleasant, near the Jersey Shore, was among the eight licensed marijuana patients who attended a novel cannabis cooking class Saturday at the New Jersey Alternative Medicine clinic in Turnersville.
Each brought a plastic baggie containing one-eighth or one-fourth of an ounce of cannabis buds that, voila, would be converted into infused butter and then into extra-special muffins or cookies if all went well. One-eighth of an ounce would yield eight chocolate chip or oatmeal cookies.
The students ranged in age from 43 to 77 and their occupations included construction contractor, retired farmer, hospital worker. They suffer from such ailments as severe spinal problems, post-traumatic stress syndrome, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, and chronic pain.
"I take marijuana by smoking it or using the lozenges, but I plan to start cooking with it so that I can avoid getting smoke into my lungs," said Craig Johnson, 69, a Lawnside resident. Before he retired he was a custodian for the Haddonfield School District. He has intractable muscular skeletal spasticity.
The lozenges, Johnson said, have produced inconsistent results.
Cannabi Kitchen, a business owned by Vanessa Amador, held the cooking class at the Gloucester County clinic where Andrew Medvedovsky, a neurologist who specializes in pain management, writes marijuana recommendations for qualified patients. The four-hour class was $50 and was limited to patients with a New Jersey marijuana license.
Soon after the patients arrived, the small office was abuzz as they eagerly shared stories about which strains worked best and how they cope. They quickly bonded and exchanged contact numbers.
Though each had a different ailment, it was clear they were in this together. They wanted to learn as much as possible so that they could make the best darn cookies they could to relieve their pain and make their expensive medicine stretch.
Six of the eight students didn't want their last names used because of the social stigma they believe is still attached to marijuana use. In February, a Quinnipiac poll found 93 percent of Americans are in favor of medical marijuana, while 59 percent support full legalization, but that didn't give them comfort.
Some of the students have businesses and worry about losing customers. They said some customers don't understand even though they got approval from doctors to use marijuana and they selected strains that don't affect their work performance.
Others said they just aren't ready to publicly admit they are medical-marijuana patients.
Woods said she was willing to disclose she is a patient because she is convinced the marijuana is working and is better than the 60 surgeries and medications she was prescribed for complex regional pain syndrome. She brought to the class a baggie with AC-DC strain, which she said eases pain without delivering a high.
Woods said she enrolled in the class because she is still experimenting and searching for the most effective way to use medical marijuana.
Eleanor, 77, of Hainesport, said she decided to take the class because her previous attempts to bake cannabis cookies at home failed to deliver adequate pain relief. "I kept trying, but I was wasting it," she said. She has spinal problems, including stenosis.
Valay suggested she try using less butter with her marijuana. He provided the ratio and she wrote it down.
Valay, 35, of Washington Township, previously worked for the Compassionate Sciences dispensary in Bellmawr, where part of his job was to give cooking demonstrations. Dispensaries are tightly regulated, and a hands-on class was not permitted.
On a recent tour of several dispensaries in Colorado, Valay learned how to cook cannabis chicken from a chef. "Everyone thinks of brownies and cookies, but you can make real food with cannabis," he said.
The cooking method he teaches produces cannabis cookies that don't have a strong taste or smell, he said. "We won't be making space cakes to go to the moon. But you will know it's working and you won't feel totally spaced out," he told the students.
Valay advised the students to eat only a small amount the first time and to gradually increase it after seeing how well they tolerate it. "There are many variables, including metabolism, body-mass index," he said.
Like many states with medical-marijuana programs, New Jersey allows dispensaries to sell edibles. But the state Health Department has rejected the dispensaries' applications for approval of an edible product.
During the class, Valay taught the students how to heat the marijuana in the oven to activate it, how to crumble it into fine pieces to mix into melted butter, and how to strain it through a cheesecloth. The canna-butter would then be the special ingredient added to a cookie or muffin mix to produce cannabis sweets.
The students enthusiastically scribbled notes, asked questions, and followed instructions, stirring their strains – Blue Dream, Wappa, Lavender, and Very Berry – into their pots of butter.
But the class wasn't just academic.