The reality is that edibles are fundamentally different from smoked marijuana, a truth that more people are learning the hard way.

It’s 7:30 p.m. on 4/20 and I’m standing on the doorstep of my old college friend’s house. I inhale fully and knock gently, bracing myself for what I know is coming: the door flying open, a high-pitched squealing noise, and Emma* squeezing the life out of me. Even if her hugs left me breathless, I still loved her to death. But today was different.  The door doesn’t fly open. It doesn’t even swing wide. It cracks, and an inquisitive eyeball stares back at me. Emma proceeds to open the door, both feet planted firmly on the faded Totoro doormat in the hall. Her bare feet weren’t tromping all over mine in excitement as usual. “Hi,” she says wistfully, turning slowly toward the couch. Yeah, are you high? I wonder silently, incredulously. Emma never greets me with anything that has less than three invisible exclamation points. Still, I have to ask.

“What’s wrong with you?” I prod, my eyes scanning her body for clues.       

“I ate a brownie,” she says slowly, reaching for her box of double chocolate oreos.

Oh, no. Not you. Not my innocent airhead, overly-trusting friend.

“How big was it? Who’d you get it from? How long ago did you eat it? Sit down for God’s sake,” my disbelief quickly turned to concern as she stood next to the couch, staring blankly at a clump of ferret hair on the tile. She had only said five words to me. Historically, I wouldn’t have been able to get a word in edgewise as she recounted her day at work and gushed about whichever “Overwatch” character she was currently sketching. The air encircling my endlessly eccentric friend hangs sullen and silent, and the red flags just keep coming.

“I got it from my friend in class. We went back to his house and I ate it. Driving home was really scary.” She recites the story with calculated effort as I brush the cookie crumbs from the couch and make her sit. “I felt as if I kept falling asleep and it was hard for me to focus on the road. I wanted to pull off the road but I was too scared to switch lanes, thinking I’d blackout,” she says. By this point, I’m envisioning her beautiful black mustang (I remember the day her dad surprised her with it; I’ve always been jealous) running a red light and slamming into another car, leaving Emma to be airlifted to the hospital. The reality that she narrowly avoided this kind of situation leaves me clutching my friend’s shoulders.

“Jesus, Emma. How did you think it was ok to drive?” I stare at my friend as a mix of gratitude and exasperation wash over me.

“I don’t know, I guess I thought I was fine, it wasn’t that long of a drive. Cami, I’m ok,” she affirms, but as she looks into my eyes it becomes clear that my sweet friend, who had never before touched drugs, isn’t seeing the same thing I am. Now, it isn’t Emma eating an edible (marijuana-infused food item) for the first time that gets me, it’s that she blindly accepted it without knowing what kind of effect it would have on her. But with research about edibles seriously lacking and few fully understanding cannabis confections, it’s not immediately surprising that my friend didn’t think twice before eating the brownie. One thing is clear: The U.S. is in a state of flux regarding marijuana, as laws surrounding its use vary from one state to the next. Medical usage for specific ailments is legal in at least 23 states, with eight states ruling recreational use legal as well. And with the herb’s continuous destigmatization, people are looking for more creative ways to ingest it. From vaping it or cooking it with quinoa to blending its resin into lollipops, edibles appear in almost any foodstuff imaginable, but overindulgence can lead to much more than a sugar high.

The reality is that edibles are fundamentally different from smoked marijuana, a truth that more people are learning the hard way.

To put it simply, The Cannabist affirms “…the two substances are merely cousins of one another, not identical twins.” The effects of cannabis-infused goodies vary greatly from smoking for several reasons, two of the most critical being:

  1. The body absorbs tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) differently with edibles. When a lighter touches a pot bud, this psychoactive material of the leaf is decarboxylated immediately, and the smoke travels directly to the bloodstream via the lungs. This produces a quickly recognizable high. With edibles, THC is decarboxylated in the extraction process involved in making the food. The chemical must pass through the stomach and the liver before creating a noticeable high. This can take anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours to set in, but when it does, the high can last up to 10 hours. This slow reaction time makes it all too easy for people to overdose on edibles.
  2. Edibles are usually made from an unknown variety of trim. In the past, growers simply discarded the plant waste (trim) on marijuana plants for its low THC content, selling only the potent buds of the plant. Because of its cheap price, this trim is often used by manufacturers in the production of edibles, but at a cost to users: Manufacturers usually use a mish-mash variety of trim from strains of marijuana that differ in quality (indica, sativa, etc.). And as each strain can have different psychoactive and/or hallucinogenic effects on the body, there’s really no telling what kind of high one could experience from edibles made with mixed trim.   

At the end of the day, I wish Emma would have known enough to understand that edibles are much different than smoking. After we had spent a couple hours together that night, Emma’s high subsided and her usual candor returned. But as she regained chattiness, all I could think about was someone I love crashing and burning — in every sense of the phrase. Like so many people who have ended up in dire situations, Emma assumed she would retain a reasonable amount of control while using a drug — the dangers of this one still mostly unknown. Because research on edibles is still in its infancy, it’s critical to think twice before ingesting marijuana confections. Legal, recreational marijuana use will continue to rise, but it’s imperative to remember that there are significant differences between edibles and their smoked, leafy cousins. Just as the first Golden Rule of edibles states: “Start small and be patient, or you’re going to have a bad time.”

Don’t let a “bad time” become something worse. If you have questions about edibles, or if you or someone you know is struggling to stop using marijuana, we’re always here to talk. The Recovery Village’s marijuana hotline is open 24/7, with complete confidentiality and understanding from people who know.

a woman in a black cardigan smiles at the camera.
By – Camille Renzoni
Cami Renzoni is a creative writer and editor for The Recovery Village. As an advocate for behavioral health, Cami is certified in mental health first aid and encourages people who face substance use disorders to ask for the help they deserve. Read more
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