Edibles have come a long way since people started mixing marijuana into brownie batter.
Cannabis-infused foods have become a multimillion-dollar market in California, with edibles popping up at weddings, gourmet dinners, yoga classes and reality TV shows. And while smoking remains the most popular way to consume cannabis, a market report from New Frontier Data, a company that tracks the marijuana industry, shows consumers increasingly are choosing to eat their weed.
It’s also now legal for adults in California to have cannabis simply for the purpose of getting high thanks to voters legalizing recreational marijuana in November. That means some folks who steered clear of weed just seven months ago may now be considering edibles for the first time.
But eating cannabis-infused foods can be tricky. In fact, if you’ve ever heard a story about someone ending up in serious misery as a result of weed – like Maureen Dowd’s infamous tale of lying on the floor of a Colorado hotel room for eight hours, convinced she was dead – it probably started with an edible.
“I’m not a big fan of edibles,” said Dr. Allan Frankel with GreenBridge Medical in Santa Monica.
Frankel has built his practice on helping medical marijuana patients take precise doses of cannabis strains that have been carefully chosen to ease their particular conditions. Given the way edibles work in the body, he said it’s too tough to control the dosing.
There’s no record of anyone dying from too much weed. But horror stories whispered by friends or shouted by New York Times columnists might scare off people who’ve never tried edibles before. Or folks who haven’t tried them since eating that special brownie in college. Or people who’ve had their own Dowd-style experience and vowed to never try edibles again.
“A lot of patients and enthusiasts are staying away from edibles altogether,” said Julianna Carella, CEO of Auntie Dolores, an Oakland food company that makes cannabis-infused nuts, caramel corn and other edibles.
One thing that may make them reconsider? Health concerns over hitting joints and bongs – perhaps particularly in California, which paved the way with anti-tobacco laws.
“Smoking or inhaling stuff is not a very natural feeling to a lot of people,” said Mike Heller, co-founder of Oakland-based MJ Wooly, which helps companies infuse their foods and drinks with cannabis.
Though current research suggests smoking marijuana isn’t as dangerous as smoking tobacco, Heller insists breathing anything into your lungs isn’t beneficial over time. Studies do show higher rates of bronchitis and other breathing conditions among chronic weed smokers. And medical marijuana patients who have weakened immune systems from cancer or other conditions may be particularly susceptible to such conditions, making edibles a more attractive option.
Edibles are also a more discreet way to imbibe without sparking complaints from neighbors or raising concerns over secondhand smoke.
And if adults understand how cannabis-infused edibles work in their bodies and are smart about consumption, all three experts said they can be a viable option for both medical marijuana patients and recreational consumers who’d rather eat their weed than smoke it.
How edibles work in the body
The sensation people get from smoking or eating cannabis is ultimately pretty similar. But the way they ingest the plant determines how the body processes THC, the compound in cannabis that makes consumers feel high. And that affects everything from how long it takes the weed to kick in to how intense the high might be.
“If you’re smoking or vaping, you’re absorbing all the THC and other cannabinoids through your lungs,” Heller said. Those compounds go straight into the bloodstream, which means smokers are likely to feel the effects within five to 10 minutes.
With edibles, on the other hand, the body has to digest the food or drink. It’s absorbed through the stomach, passes through the intestine and makes it ways to the liver, which breaks down the THC and allows it to enter the bloodstream. That means it can take anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours to feel the full impact.
As with swallowing other types of drugs or drinking alcohol, the impact of edibles will also depend a great deal on the particular person. Someone who weighs 90 pounds and hasn’t eaten that day will likely feel the effects more intensely than someone who weighs more and has recently eaten a big meal.
The person’s metabolism and prior experience with cannabis can also play a role, though even experienced smokers are sometimes surprised at how hard edibles hit them.
“There’s a really wide range of tolerance levels,” Carella said. “Some people are perfectly fine with 5 mg (of THC) and someone else needs 500 mg.”
The type of edibles the person consumed factors in, too, Heller said, since the body can break down tiny THC molecules suspended in beverages more quickly than they can digest the sugars and other ingredients in a heavy baked good. Plus, some THC is absorbed through the mouth when people drink infused beverages or suck on cannabis candies.
The liver also converts THC into a different type of molecule than what’s absorbed by the lungs. And Heller said that molecule is believed to be as much as 10 times more psychoactive than the type of THC smokers experience. So while the dose of THC is the biggest factor in how high consumers get, Heller said eating cannabis may make the high more intense.
Expect a much longer high
There’s also a big difference in how long the high lasts when weed is smoked vs. when it’s eaten.
“It’s much, much longer lasting and more powerful,” Frankel said.
Smokers can expect to feel some impact for perhaps three hours. Edibles bind to fats in the body and may not wear off entirely for eight or even 10 hours.That’s why eating cannabis is a preferred method for many people who use it to help them sleep, since the mind-altering affects may well get them that coveted eight hours of sleep. But it also means people should clear their schedules and find somewhere they feel comfortable before trying cannabis-infused foods or drinks.
“For some people, it’s hard to go out in public,” Heller said. “Make sure you don’t have to go anywhere. And definitely don’t be driving.”
Start low, go slow
That’s the motto for edibles newbies.
The accepted recommendation is to start with an edible that has no more than 10 mg of THC, with most experts advising a dose of 2.5 to 5 mg the first time out of the gate.
Almost every bad edibles experience follows a similar pattern. Beginners may start slow, with just a tiny nibble on that lemon square. They wait half an hour and don’t feel much of anything, so they eat some more of that tasty treat. But since it can take up to two hours for the high from edibles to fully kick in, they soon discover they’ve had way too much.
“That’s probably the biggest issue with edibles,” Heller said. “I know a lot of people that have overmedicated that way. And that can be a really terrifying experience.”To avoid that cliché, experts suggest waiting at least two hours before ingesting more cannabis. Better yet? Wait a day and start next time with a slightly higher dose, increasing by 5 mg or so at a time until they find a level that gives them the desired effect.
“It really pays off to be patient,” Heller said. “It may take two tries or three tries to get it right. But that’s a lot better than taking five times what you need in one sitting and having a panic attack.”
Another rookie mistake is to start off trying to make edibles at home. That may seem like an attractive option, since it gives consumers the feeling of control over what they’re eating. But it’s actually quite challenging to precisely infuse edibles with a particular amount of THC.
“If people are baking it at home, I don’t think most of them have any idea what’s in each piece,” Frankel said. “It’s hard enough for people who are professionals to figure it out.”
That’s why many experts recommend beginners buy their first edibles from the pros.
What to shop for
Before you start shopping, keep in mind that, although it’s now legal under Proposition 64 for adults 21 and over to possess up to an ounce of cannabis, shoppers still need a doctor’s recommendation for medical marijuana to buy products until recreational marijuana sales start Jan. 1.
Adults with that recommendation in hand can find the closest dispensary through websites such as Weedmaps and Leafly, or they can order home delivery via platforms such as Eaze and GreenRush. The key is to search for a shop that sells lab-tested products – something that’s not yet required under California law.
It’s not unusual to still find infused sweets from a festival or underground shop that have no labels at all. But reputable companies such as Auntie Dolores have for years voluntarily lab tested their products and packaged them with branded labels that indicate how much THC is inside. (New California regulations say that all cannabis products must be independently lab tested and labeled starting next year.)
Consumers should shop for products that come in what will soon be required serving sizes with 10 mg or less of THC, Heller said, so they can stick to the “start low, go slow” motto. Beyond that, he said it’s personal preference.
What to do if you overindulge
Say something went awry and someone ends up in a Dowd-like trance on the bathroom floor. What should they do next?
“Go to bed,” Heller said.
He reminds consumers that there’s no such thing as a toxic level of THC. That means there’s generally no need to go to the emergency room unless there are compounding factors putting the consumer at risk, such as pregnancy or a heart condition.
There isn’t a magic cure for quickly getting cannabis out of the system anyhow. People who go to the emergency room after eating too much weed generally find themselves resting on a hospital bed with an IV delivering fluids. So Heller recommends most people skip the pricey bill and stay home, drink plenty of fluids and try to sleep it off.
There are some home remedies said to help ease negative sensations for people who have overindulged. The team at Irie Wedding & Events, which plans cannabis weddings, brings chamomile tea to calm anyone who gets too high. And many people – including Neil Young – swear that sniffing or munching on black peppercorn will instantly ease feelings of anxiety, with some research to support that method.
Both Heller and Frankel said the trick with real science behind it is to take a dose of pure CBD, another compound found in cannabis that can displace THC in your system. Frankel said anyone experimenting with edibles might want to keep a product with 15 mg or so of CBD on hand to help balance them out.
The most important thing, Heller said, is to stay calm.
Since cannabis is a psychedelic substance, he said it’s largely mind over matter when it comes to the way people react. If they remind themselves that they can’t die and that the sensation will eventually go away, he said they can often talk themselves through the experience without experiencing Dowd-level panic and misery.
“Know that what you’re doing is safe. You can’t overdose on it,” Heller said. “As long as you keep telling yourself that, you’ll be much better off.”