‘Edibles’, as they are commonly known, are an attractive method of consuming cannabis for those who do not want to smoke and want to take a more health-conscious approach to the plant’s use. It is also thought to be a more effective way to consume cannabis in order to treat ailments such as pain, seizures, or insomnia.

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However, users quickly discovered that proper dosing is much more difficult when consuming cannabis orally versus smoking it. When eating cannabis, it is easier to overdose or underdose, but the biggest complaint from many users is the delayed action of edibles, which can lead to some beginners greatly over exceeding their desired effect by eating a second dose before the first dose is working. One of the first thing consumers must learn is how long edibles take to kick in.

Smoking Weed Isn't the Same as Eating it

The main psychoactive compound in cannabis that provides the desired effect for users is known specifically as delta-nine-tetrahydrocannabinol (∆9-THC). This compound, along with CBD, CBN, and several other cannabinoids trigger cannabinoid receptors that are located throughout the body, including the brain. THC, and its related metabolites, react primarily with what are known as CB-1 receptors, and are associated with cognitive functions such as memory, dopamine circuits, anxiety, pain, endocrine function, and motor skills. CBD, also known as cannabinol, reacts primarily with CB-2 receptors found throughout the body and are related to functions such as the immune system.

Edibles are a friendly alternative to smoking for newbies

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The compound ∆9-THC is highly lipophilic, meaning it is attracted to oil and fats, and is thus readily absorbed by fatty tissues in the body, including the lungs, liver, and spleen. For this reason, smoking cannabis means that the compound is readily absorbed into the body, achieving peak concentrations in the blood very rapidly. A 2012 study from Iran found that, when cannabis is smoked, ∆9-THC is detectable in blood plasma within seconds, and peaked within 8 to 10 minutes. The level then quickly decreases over the course of about 3-4 hours.

The same study also looked at ∆9-THC concentrations in the blood after consuming cannabis orally, and found very different results. Unlike smoking, absorption rates are very slow, as the compound must first be metabolized by the liver before entering the blood stream. This process means that there is a delay in action, and in the study above peak concentration in blood plasma were not observed until 1-2 hours following consumption, and in some cases even longer. From there, the ∆9-THC was absorbed and rereleased by fatty tissues in the body, resulting in multiple peaks in concentration. The study also found that peak concentrations of ∆9-THC in the blood where higher through oral consumption than when smoked. Other studies found similar results, with initial onset of effects at 30 minutes to one hour, peak concentration at 2-4 hours, and effects lasting up to 6 hours.

Wait Before Eating More!

The delayed onset and higher blood plasma concentrations of edibles versus smoked weed can catch even veteran users off guard. Those used to smoking cannabis are able to regulate their dose easily as they quickly peak, and thus know whether or not to consume more. With edibles, however, it can be harder to regulate peak levels. For many beginners, they will consume a similar dose of cannabis to what they are used to smoking and expect similar results. When, after 20-30 minutes those results are not realized they may be led to consuming more, not realizing the delayed action. When blood THC levels do start to peak several hours later they may find that they have consumed more than intended.

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This has been a major concern in states which have recently legalized cannabis, such as Colorado. In fact, calls to poison centers regarding cannabis consumption nearly doubled in 2014, the year it was legalized, going from 88 calls to 151 calls. According to Q13 Fox News, even some police officers in Michigan got caught up in the overconsumption of edibles and had to call 911. As such, states such as Colorado have subsequently taken steps to regulate the amount of THC in the serving size for edibles.

Further compounding this issue, several studies have indicated that the psychoactive effects of consuming cannabis orally are different from smoking it. In a 2005 case report, it was indicated that oral cannabis consumption produced a higher concentration of the primary metabolite of THC, also known as 11-hydyoxy-THC (11-OH-THC) in blood plasma than smoking it. The same study also suggested that eating the plant may produce more psychotomimetic metabolites (those which can produce a temporary psychotic state) of THC, and that the mechanism of absorption produced sustained plateaus in blood concentrations which could affect the way the compound is distributed throughout the body.

Blackboard with the chemical formula of THC iStock / Zerbor

How To Avoid Problems When Eating Cannabis

Many users claim that after switching to edible cannabis from smoking they notice many positive health benefits, and enjoy the ‘high’ better. In fact, a recent study found that between 16-26% of medical cannabis users prefer edibles.

However, it is important to avoid the pitfalls described above by venturing into things carefully and slowly. We have put together the following list of tips to help you move away from the dangers associated with smoking while still being able to achieve the desired health or recreational benefits of the plant.

  • Start with a low dose (<10mg) and see how it affects you before taking more.
  • Understand the differences between popular types of edibles
    • Sativa – will provide a stimulant type high, great for day time, creative tasks, and induce altered/more active thinking (avoid if you suffer from insomnia or anxiety)
    • Indica – will provide a more relaxed, calm high. Great for evenings, increasing appetite, relieving insomnia, or anxiety.
    • Hybrid – a mix of both strains, for the experienced user who wants a bit of both worlds. This is what is most commonly found in value priced edibles.
  • Do not rush it, wait at least 2 hours before consuming more.
  • Check the labels, some edibles (such as mints, tinctures, gums, hard candies, etc.) are formulated to absorb sublingually (through the tissues under the tongue) and can take affect after as little as 20 minutes.
  • Do not drive or attempt to operate heavy machinery after taking edibles.
  • Understand how a particular edible will affect you, regulation in the market is currently lacking in most states, and many suppliers under or over represent the amount of THC contained in their products through labeling.