Why Do Edibles Give You A Different High Than Smoking?
The scientific explanation, plus how to avoid a bad edibles experience.
Two Toronto police officers were recently suspended from duty after allegedly eating too many marijuana edibles, becoming completely fucked up, then calling the cops on themselves. The officers complained of “hallucinations” and were later treated at a hospital.
It’s kind of a funny story, but can edibles really screw you up that much? Like any drug, the answer depends on the dose and the route of administration, yet there is a fundamental difference between the high you get from smoking weed and eating a pot-laced brownie.
Compared to puffing a joint, edibles can give you a much stronger “couch-locking” body high that lasts longer, sometimes four to six hours, but they take longer to kick in. Yes, you’ll feel the effects of smoking within minutes, but they’ll peak within 30 to 60 minutes and taper off between two to four hours. But when you smoke you actually absorb more cannabinoids, the high-inducing ingredients in weed such as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), than you do from edibles. So why would an edible high be more potent and linger on?
“The issue isn’t that [weed is] metabolized differently, it's that it's gonna get metabolized to different degrees in different parts of the body, depending on the route of administration,” Nick Jikomes, the principal research scientist at Leafly, explains.
Jikomes earned his PhD in neuroscience at Harvard Medical School. His work includes collaborating with cannabis testing labs to create better ways of classifying marijuana strains based on their cannabinoid and terpene profiles. (Terpenes are the essential oils found in plants that give off distinct aromas.)
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“The real difference between edibles and smoking or vaping is that with edibles, a much larger fraction of Delta-9-THC makes it to the liver first. There it gets converted to 11-hydroxy-THC,” Jikomes says. “So in other words, if you smoke or vape, the ratio of 11-hydroxy-THC to Delta-9-THC is quite low, and if you take an edible it's much higher.”
Most people have heard of THC, but 11-hydroxy-THC is a distinctly different cannabinoid and it’s not as well studied. Much of the research on 11-hydroxy-THC is older and focuses on the ability to detect it in urine samples and blood assays, rather than its psychoactivity.
But 11-hydroxy-THC is indeed potent, perhaps even more so than its cousin. In a 1973 study, nine men were injected with 1mg of 11-hydroxy-THC, and later THC, then asked to rate their high on a scale of zero to ten.
“After the intravenous administration of 11-OH-Δ⁹-THC, there were pronounced psychologic and pharmacologic effects…A marked tachycardia, an intense psychologic high, and considerable symptoms were produced,” researchers from the Lilly Laboratory for Clinical Research wrote. “All subjects reported a maximum psychologic high within 2-3 min after the intravenous administration of 11-OH-Δ⁹-THC that was more intense than that previously experienced after smoking marihuana.”
It’s really not much—and almost entirely subjective—but it’s some of the only research we’ve got.
Jay Denniston, an analytical chemist and the director of science at the Colorado-based edible producer Dixie Elixers, says there are lots of other factors involved in what makes an edible high different.
“Psychoactivity and the effects of cannabis depend not only on the cannabinoids,” he says, “But on the terpene levels, on the individual metabolite of the person, on what that person had already eaten that day; it depends on the setting.”
When you smoke marijuana, THC gets sucked into your bloodstream via the alveoli in the lungs. But THC is an oil-soluble compound, meaning it doesn’t break down well in blood, which is mostly water. So within seconds, it looks to bind with the endocannabinoid receptors in the body, never really having a chance to be metabolized by the gastrointestinal tract.
But when you ingest cannabis, your saliva immediately starts to break down that THC. Once it hits the stomach and then the liver, it becomes 11-hydroxy-THC.
“Now it's bound to a glucuronide compound, which makes [11-hydroxy-THC] more water-soluble,” Denniston says. “So it's much ‘happier.’ It could diffuse much, much easier across your blood-brain barrier. [Once it’s metabolized] it can actually go faster into your brain and faster all the way throughout your body.”
So that’s why, even though it can take 30 to 90 minutes for edibles to kick in, the high will last longer and feel stronger.
The full-body high doesn’t mean edibles are “dangerous,” even if journalists like Maureen Dowd have had rough experiences sampling them. After all, alcohol-related illness kills about 88,000 people per year—more than passed away from drug overdoses in 2016—but no one has ever croaked from consuming marijuana.
“Technically, you can overdose on THC, but you can't die from it, so it's not like an opioid,” Jikomes says. “There’s a valid reason for concern, but we take these precautions already with lots of other things, including traditional medicines that have childproof packaging. I think this is no different.”
Jody Hall, founder of cannabis edibles company The Goodship, agrees. “When you buy products that are not safe for kids—OxyContin or pharmaceuticals or guns or alcohol—you need to either have that conversation with your kids and help them understand that this is not for children or keep it away from them,” she says.
But when it comes to adult use, how do you make sure you have a good time without going overboard? In cannabis-legal states like Washington, where The Goodship is based, 10mg of THC is the single serving size of marijuana-infused products. But if you’re a newbie, Hall says you may want to start even smaller—say, 5mg or 2.5mg. Yet some edibles can be as dank as 500mg or even 1000mg in a single chocolate bar.
“We’re really big on micro-dosing,” Hall says. “We really encourage people to start slow. The ongoing battle against ‘edible Roulette’ is real and we want to put the training wheels on that experience, the ability for people to dial in their ‘zone.’”
If you do end up taking too much and start to feel dizzy or sick, a few things will help you ride it out. Close your eyes and drink lots of water, Denniston suggests. And if you have some cannabidiol or CBD, another extract of marijuana, it can dampen the effects of THC. These days CBD comes in oral-use tinctures and even water bottles. Jikomes says this might work but he warns that CBD may also affect the metabolism of THC such that it might actually prolong how long it’s in the bloodstream.
“I don't know how well that will work in practice...The number one thing is just to be in a setting ahead of time where you are comfortable and you can just lay down and ride through it,” Jikomes says. “If you have a CBD vape pen or something, it certainly wouldn't hurt to try puffing on that to see if it helps ameliorate the effects.”
In the meantime, more research on 11-hydroxy-THC needs to be done. And perhaps someone can educate those cops on the importance of proper edible dosing.
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