An overdose is defined as taking more than a prescribed amount of a drug, leading to adverse or unwanted effects, or even death. In the case of many drugs such as opioids, benzodiazepines, and amphetamines, an overdose is a life-threatening situation. Today, this is one of the leading causes of death for Americans 25-45 years old. But can you overdose on weed? As cannabis becomes legal in many states, more people are experimenting with it, leading to more calls to poison control centers around the country, primarily due to the overconsumption of edibles.

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Overdosing on Weed

Even since ancient Sumerian times, there have been folk medicines for mitigating the overconsumption of marijuana. These include drinking lemonade or consuming black pepper, both of which contain terpenes that balance and regulate the psychoactive effects of THC. These home remedies are in the literature because overconsumption is actually quite common when eating or drinking cannabis, as is done in much of India and the Middle East. The symptoms of overconsumption include:

  • Anxiety
  • Paranoia
  • Tachycardia
  • Sweating
  • Confusion
  • Disorientation
  • Nervousness

Young adult smoking marijuana iStock / petdcat
However, these effects are not life-threatening and tend to subside after a few hours, depending on the route of administration and amount of cannabis consumed. In Emergency Rooms, patients admitted due to an overdose of cannabis are just given a place to relax, monitored, and then released, usually with little to no long-term effects. In fact, for most of human history, there were no records of anybody dying from an overdose of weed, only through indirect means such as accidents at work, drownings, car crashes, etc. This is primarily because weed has very low toxicity, and you would have to consume impossible amounts in order to induce death through overdose.

Synthetic Cannabis

However, this safety doesn't include synthetic cannabis—  dry herbs sprayed with a  synthetic chemical compound that is molecularly similar to THC. With the emergence of synthetic cannabinoids in the last two decades, scientists are starting to find out that you actually can overdose on fake THC, and in some rare cases, those overdoses has led to deaths. According to the scientific literature, the first case study involving death from synthetic cannabinoids was in 2008 and has been followed up with multiple reports since then. However, even as far back as the early 1990s, researchers experimenting with synthetic THC in the form of prescription drugs like Sativex ® and Marinol® were noticing that there was a higher rate of psychotic episodes then had ever been observed in studies using whole-plant cannabis. Some studies have pointed to the so-called ‘entourage effect’ which terpenes and other phytocannabinoids play in regulating the high provided by THC. Synthetic cannabis is a growing market in the world, especially in places were cannabis is illegal. As of 2016, there are around 140 synthetic cannabinoids on the market. They commonly go by names such as K2 or Spice, and are constantly changing due to the financial incentives derived from the black market for clandestine chemists. The THC found naturally in weed is known as a partial agonist of the CB-1 receptors in the body’s endocannabinoid system. Synthetic THC, on the other hand, has been shown to act as a non-selective, full agonist of the same receptors, making the substances between 2-100 times stronger than the natural version and longer-lasting. According to a 2015 review, case reports involving synthetic cannabis overdoses include symptoms such as alterations in mood, perception, tachycardia, seizures, kidney failure, and cardiac arrest. The same study estimated that currently there are about 11,000 admissions to Emergency Departments in the US each year due to synthetic THC. Furthermore, as of 2015, there had been more than 40 deaths related to or attributed to the consumption of synthetic cannabinoids. In another review of Emergency Room visits in the US, it was found that 59.3% of patients admitted due to overdose of synthetic THC had serious medical outcomes. A 2016 study concluded that synthetic cannabinoids had “significantly pronounced neurotoxicity and cardiotoxicity compared with marijuana.

lazy stoner iStock / KatarzynaBialasiewicz

Managing Weed Overdoses

As shown above, overdoses on weed are very rare and are non-life threatening. The plant is generally considered safe, with low toxicity and no scientifically recorded cases of death due to overconsumption. If you do find that you have taken too much, usually after consuming edibles, the best thing to do may be to drink some lemonade or food containing black pepper, find a comfortable place, and just relax. Focus on your breathing, talk calmly with friends and people you trust, and wait it out. After a few hours or a nap, everything should be back to normal, with possibly some lingering memory loss or decrease in mental clarity, which should go away after a few hours. In saying that, when it comes to synthetic cannabinoids, users should exercise great caution. Understand that these are not a direct replacement for weed, and although they may be similar molecules, they do not affect the body or brain in the same ways. Over the last two decades, a considerable number of case studies have pointed to the negative effects of this group of designer drugs, including health risks, psychosis, and addiction. These substances have not been extensively tested, and both the short and long-term effects are still largely unknown.