Edibles are often recommended as the ideal cannabis product type for beginners and inexperienced consumers. Yet, recent reports suggest that newbies should heed those suggestions with greater caution.
Cannabis’s sharp rise in popularity in recent years has led to increased accessibility of goods like edibles, even among adolescents. Unfortunately, people with little to no experience with cannabis tend to overdo it with edibles, often landing them in the hospital with acute cannabinoid intoxication, or ACI.
Some say that the need for stricter regulation is stronger than ever, especially due to the cannabis edible market’s rapid growth rate. It grew by about 60 percent between 2019 and 2020, creating a sense of urgency among policymakers.
Cannabis edible accidents on the rise
A recent report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) revealed some startling shifts in the cannabis industry over the last few years.
Between 2018 and 2019, the United States saw a nearly 16 percent rise in cannabis use nationwide. Ultimately, 48.2 million people over the age of 12 years old reported having smoked marijuana in 2019.
More specifically, the number of cannabis users who had smoked in the last month amounted to:
- 12-17 years old: 1.8 million
- 18-25: 7.7 million
- 26 and older: 22 million
The demographics that saw the most dramatic increases in their use patterns were young adults (26 years and older) and kids between 12 and 17.
This rapid increase is partly fueled by a swiftly growing market, particularly in the swell of edible cannabis sales. Between 2019 and 2020, this sector grew by 60 percent and is now valued at an estimated $1.23 billion.
While this may come as good news for many industry players, the expansion of cannabis edible production has been troublesome for consumers.
Many cannabis users, experienced and naive, tend to overdo it with edibles. It’s an easy mistake to make: Take a few bites of your brownie or another infused snack and wait for a few minutes. After a short time, you’ll likely (falsely) assume you haven’t eaten enough since you don’t feel anything yet.
Here’s where most people make a critical mistake: Edibles take much longer to kick in, meaning you probably won’t feel the product’s effects until 30 minutes to one hour after you’ve eaten it.
Since many expect edibles to behave the same way as smoked botanical cannabis, they take another bite, thinking they were too conservative with the first. All this compounds and the effects are far too strong when the cannabinoids kick the endocannabinoid system (ECS) into gear.
Such accidents often lead to acute cannabinoid intoxication (ACI), a condition marked by various psychotic symptoms and an abnormally fast heart rate, among other symptoms.
Risk of acute cannabinoid intoxication (ACI)
ACI cases in poison control centers have increased alongside the recent edible market expansion, going from 8-31 percent between 2017 and 2019. Children are much more severely affected, making up 48 percent of ACI reports, despite comprising a fraction of cannabis sales (11 percent).
Symptoms vary based on the amount of cannabis edible eaten, age, and other factors. ACI in kids constitutes a medical emergency, characterized by symptoms like:
- Encephalopathy (a disease affecting the brain by altering its function or structure)
- Respiratory depression (requiring ventilation in severe cases, and potentially leading to death)
Cannabis edibles are typically ideal for exercising better control over dosage. Yet, for some, they seem to be most effective in encouraging overdoses.
What to know about marijuana toxicity
Knowing what to expect from ACI will help prepare you in case you ever eat too much of an edible at once.
First, being aware of the possibility of ACI puts you miles ahead of many cannabis users’ preparedness, as numerous people believe it’s impossible to overdose on marijuana. This myth is rooted in confusion about whether it’s lethal to consume too much intoxicating cannabis at once.
Since the National Institute on Drug Abuse states, “There are no reports of teens or adults dying from marijuana alone,” people assume this means there’s no way to overdose.
Instead, excessive consumption of a specific substance doesn’t guarantee death. Medline Plus defines an “overdose” as “when you take more than the normal or recommended amount of something, often a drug.”
You might not even do it on purpose, as an overdose can happen in one of two ways:
- Accidental: This is when you eat too much of an edible by mistake. For example, you might have forgotten to read the product label and took too big of a bite. Beginners are the most likely to do this, as they may be less familiar with their tolerance levels and may not be as efficient at dosing.
- Intentional or deliberate: People with high tolerance levels may be tempted to overdo it with edibles sometimes. In these cases, you might eat quite a bit of a high-concentration edible on purpose; but you’d know what you’d be getting yourself into.
Although accidental ACI cases can happen in adults, research shows that this overdose type is much more common among children.
Out of a sample of 253 individuals, kids younger than 12 years old were deemed the most likely to “unintentionally ingest homemade edibles belonging to a family member.” About half (52 percent) the time, the primary effect was sedation.
Although children were not the only ones negatively affected by consuming edibles, these accidents affected them more severely than other age groups.
Eight of the over 200 study participants were admitted to the intensive care unit. The common factor of all their cases: edibles. The researchers reported that “[e]dibles were the most common products to cause symptoms in all age groups.”
Still, this doesn’t mean that edibles alone are the cause of ICU admission. The study authors added, “ICU admission was more likely following exposure to concentrated cannabis products in children, but not necessarily among all subjects.”
Delta-8 vs. delta-9 vs. CBD edibles: What’s the difference?
Your edible’s primary cannabinoid makes a big difference in how it’ll affect you. The most popular products on the market today mostly contain delta-8-THC, delta-9-THC, and CBD.
The most obvious difference between these three natural and synthetic cannabinoids is that tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is intoxicating, whereas cannabidiol, or CBD, is not.
(In this case, “synthetic” does not refer to an artificial compound, as delta-8 is derived from CBD. Its identity as a synthetic product lies in its application: Producers typically take delta-8 concentrate and spray it on the dried plant material for ingestion. This is the best way to make delta-8 products, as the compound doesn’t naturally occur in levels high enough to notice any effects.)
Of course, it’s much easier to overdose accidentally with intoxicating cannabis edibles containing delta-8- or delta-9-THC. Those containing CBD might make you sick, but it may not induce the same psychotic symptoms that the others will.
Here’s what you can expect from these three cannabis edible types:
- Delta-9: This cannabinoid is the one that will get you “high,” even in small amounts. With the proper dosage, you’ll feel relaxed and may experience heightened senses. Generally, experts agree that the minimum intoxication threshold is about 5 ng/mL in the blood, based on when delta-9-THC starts to impair driving.
- Delta-8: Many people once agreed that delta-8 can’t get consumers high like delta-9-THC. But further research and community experience has shown that to be false. Still, you’ll need to eat a lot more delta-8 products than delta-9 to get the same euphoric effect provided by drug-type cannabis.
- Note: Harvard Health experts state, “Delta-8-THC is an intoxicating cannabinoid, but it has only a fraction of the high that THC causes – and much less of the accompanying anxiety and paranoia.”
- CBD: This cannabinoid is known for its ability to calm symptoms of anxiety, treat chronic pain, and more. Too much CBD won’t affect you the same way as THC edibles; however, it’s not without disadvantages. Studies have shown that this compound can induce negative drug interactions, vomiting, diarrhea, and more.
How to find the best edibles
The best way to ensure a positive cannabis edible experience is to do your research. Cannabis products are incredibly popular, so many retailers may be tempted to market their product falsely.
Because of this, you must remain vigilant and know precisely what to look for to determine which are the best edibles for you:
- Primary cannabinoid: Do you want symptomatic relief or to relax and indulge in some “adult use?” CBD is the best choice for managing various mental and physical conditions; however, delta-8 and delta-9 are ideal for recreational use. Delta-8 may be a good starting point for beginners since it’s not as intense as delta-9.
- Cannabinoid potency: This is mostly a matter of preference. You can find cannabis edibles with shockingly high concentrations of THC; however, it’s best to start with modest levels, around 10 percent.
- Certificate of Analysis (COA): Look for a label detailing the edible’s chemical profile. The COA will tell you the exactly levels of each primary cannabinoid and terpene, so you can get an accurate idea of how it’ll affect you.
Even as you adhere to these tips, you must understand that shopping for edibles requires a bit of trial and error. No matter your experience level, you’ll always come across a product that doesn’t quite work for you. Yet, these guidelines will ensure that you never knowingly place your health at risk by looking for alternative ways to experience the healing effects of cannabis.
Take it slow with the edibles
Although cannabis edibles are easier to control than botanical products or vape liquids, it’s easy to overdo it. If you’ve never consumed cannabis before or don’t have much experience with it, it’s always best to do it with a friend. That way, you have someone to guide you on dosage and talk you through the symptoms if you get a bit anxious.
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.