Why eating cannabis edibles feels so different from smoking weed, according to experts

Nightmare trips are much more common when eating edibles. There's a bizarre scientific explanation why that is

By Troy Farah

Science & Health Editor

Published March 4, 2023 2:00PM (EST)

Edible cannabis products are displayed at Essence Vegas Cannabis Dispensary before the midnight start of recreational marijuana sales on June 30, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Edible cannabis products are displayed at Essence Vegas Cannabis Dispensary before the midnight start of recreational marijuana sales on June 30, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Ask anyone who's experimented with ingesting cannabis edibles, and you're apt to hear at least one uncomfortable story involving them. Mary, a retired nurse from Oregon, said she once went to a party, ate too many marijuana brownies and woke up under the coffee table hours later.

"I barely knew the people, and was very confused when their dog started licking my face," Mary told Salon. She also relayed another uncomfortable incident when she took 100mg of THC capsules on an airplane. THC is the active drug in marijuana that makes people feel stoned. "I went to the bathroom and got lost and had to have the flight attendant help me find my seat. I was too high to be embarrassed," she recalls.

What makes edibles so unpredictable in a way that inhaling cannabis doesn't? The reason is that eating cannabis produces metabolites that are technically a different drug from THC entirely.

Others shared stories of gobbling cannabis candies like, well, candy, which triggered horrible panic attacks or feelings of psychosis. Sometimes these stories were more amusing than uncomfortable, such as falling asleep in the parking lot of a concert and waking up when the show was over and everyone was leaving. After accidentally ingesting vape cartridge oil, Jamie, an editor from Oregon who requested not to use her real name, thought her hands were disappearing.

"I forgot where I was for over an hour and had to use Google on my phone to find… myself," Jamie told Salon. "I didn't sleep at all, even after taking some of my prescription Xanax, so acute was the panic. I could tell I was in an Airbnb, but I couldn't remember what city or country I was in."

And there are dozens of tales of taking an edible, feeling nothing, then taking way more. Of course, when it finally does kick in, it can be an overwhelming experience, as happened to New York Times writer Maureen Dowd.

Yet smoking a joint or puffing a THC vape pen doesn't tend to send people spiraling in quite the same way. What makes edibles so unpredictable in a way that inhaling cannabis doesn't? The reason is that eating cannabis produces metabolites that are technically a different drug from THC entirely.

Our bodies have nervous systems, digestive systems, immune systems and they also have endocannabinoid systems (ECS). The research on the ECS is still relatively new, so we're not entirely sure how this system works, but it plays a big role in mood, immunity and homeostasis, or general balance throughout the body. It was discovered in the '90s by scientists studying cannabis, hence the name.

Cannabis plants coincidentally produce drugs like THC and CBD, a more medicinal cannabinoid, that can operate on receptors in the ECS. This is why THC gets people high, while other cannabinoids like CBG, CBN and THCV can stimulate different health-promoting pathways in the body. THCV, for example, is associated with lower weight, though the way it works is too complex for weed to constitute a weight-loss drug.

People take cannabis for a lot of different reasons, but how they take it, known as the route of administration, is just as important as the dose or the type of cannabinoid. Smoking brings a drug directly into the bloodstream via the lungs. Eating the same drug changes the way the body breaks it down, which can result in a totally different intoxicating effect.

"Oral ingestion of cannabis, such as THC and CBD, results in significant first-pass effect, which means that the cannabinoid compounds are circulated to the liver where they are metabolized or broken down into compounds called metabolites," Dr. Bonni Goldstein, author of the book "Cannabis is Medicine," told Salon. Goldstein is also the medical director at Canna-Centers, a California-based medical practice devoted to medical marijuana treatment.

The main metabolite that edibles produce is called 11-OH-THC, its full scientific name being 11-hydroxy-delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol. Even though it has THC in its name, 11-OH-THC is technically a different drug than THC, full name delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol. Both drugs will get you stoned, but 11-OH-THC is estimated to be about four times as potent as THC. The high also lasts much longer and can be more sedating for many people, Goldstein says.

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This is partially due to the fact that 11-OH-THC crosses the blood-brain barrier more easily, traversing the protective layer between the blood vessels in the brain and the brain tissue itself. More of the drug in the brain can equal more intoxicating effects.

Smoking cannabis produces 11-OH-THC as well, but far less of it. "After oral ingestion, the ratio of 11-OH-THC to THC is about 0.5:1 to 1:1, whereas inhalation results in ratios of 11-OH-THC:THC of about 1:20," Goldstein explains. Depending on one's genetics, however, this ratio can differ. An enzyme in the liver called CYP2C9 is responsible for chopping up THC into 11-OH-THC. Some people have more of this enzyme than others.

"Your genetics will also play a factor in this. Some people have different variants of that CYP2C9, so it actually makes it less effective at metabolizing and effectively getting the THC out," Kyle Boyar, a cannabis scientist based in San Diego who has been studying the plant's chemistry for over a decade, told Salon. Boyar was previously the vice-chair of cannabis chemistry for the American Chemical Society and specializes in cannabis testing and analytical chemistry. He says it can take longer for the body to excrete 11-OH-THC compared to THC. "So you're gonna get higher for longer because it's going to hang around longer in your system," he adds.

Hence, the reason edibles feel different is because they are literally different drugs involved. Knowing this, it can be easier to use edibles in a way that won't cause a dreadful experience.

First of all, check the package for how much is contained and what ratio of cannabinoids are present. Some products will contain just THC, others include THC and CBD, or other "minor" cannabinoids like CBN or CBG. All of these different cannabinoids have different properties — CBN is great for sleep, for example — and their ratios will impact the experience. A standard dose of THC is considered five milligrams, but its effects will vary based on personal tolerance or how often someone uses cannabis.

"Those new to cannabis should start low and go slow, so as to avoid any adverse side effects. Dosing for new users ranges from 1 to 2.5 mg of THC," Goldstein says.

Second, respect the lag phase. Give it time for an edible to kick in. You can always eat more, but you can't eat less. If it's a product you haven't tried before, don't eat half the package.

"It is recommended to wait one to three hours for the effects to kick in," Goldstein says. "If no effect is felt after three hours, another low dose can be taken or wait until the next day to try a slightly higher dose."

Delta-8-THC, which is literally only one carbon bond different than delta-9-THC, can feel radically different.

Some marijuana edibles are designed to kick in faster. Many dispensaries offer edible products that use specialized ingredients to increase the bioavailability of the drug, or how much is absorbed by the stomach. Some are nanoemulsified into tiny oil-in-water droplets or tweaked to attach to a sugar molecule, which means the THC molecule is specially modified so that it is soaked up into the bloodstream faster and stays intact longer. That means presumably less 11-OH-THC, if that's something you're trying to avoid.

"Basically, these are all just different systems of encapsulating your molecule so that the bodily more readily uptakes it," Boyar says. "Getting it into a form where the body will absorb it more readily will basically prevent less liver transformation and get it more in its native form."

Unfortunately, the proliferation of hemp-derived cannabinoids have made the entire cannabis industry a little more unpredictable. Thanks to a loophole in the 2018 Farm Bill that legalized hemp (a breed of cannabis that can't get anyone stoned), many companies are selling products like delta-8-THC or other semi-synthetic blends of THC analogs including HHC, THCP and THC-O acetate, though some of these were recently banned by the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Many of these THC analogs have a higher potency than THC, meaning they can make someone feel more intoxicated or stoned. But delta-8-THC, which is literally only one carbon bond different than delta-9-THC, can feel radically different.

"There's certainly less anxiety associated with delta-8 products. It's associated with a little less discomfort or anxiety," Boyar explains. "So some people prefer delta-8 for that very reason. It is a different high entirely."

The chemistry of cannabis can be complex, and even slight changes to these molecules can change how the body reacts to them. Delta-8 occurs naturally in cannabis plants, only at much lower levels. So the problem isn't this particular cannabinoid, but how it's produced.

"Hemp-derived cannabinoids such as delta-8-THC and THC-O-acetate are problematic," Goldstein says. "These compounds are made through a process called acid catalysis, which also results in the production of a number of other synthetic compounds that have not been subjected to toxicology evaluations. Emergency rooms throughout the U.S. are seeing increased visits due to adverse effects of delta-8-THC, such as psychosis, depression and suicidal ideation."

"As a cannabis clinician, I have been advising my patients to avoid these synthetic products and only to use home-grown cannabis or tested cannabis products from state-licensed dispensaries," Goldstein added. "Since there is no oversight or regulation of the manufacturing process of these synthetic cannabinoids, contaminants such as heavy metals and other impurities are a major concern in addition to the unknown safety profile."

The problem is the delta-8 market isn't as well regulated as the legal cannabis markets in some states. Shoddy chemistry is part of the equation, but we also know very little about what metabolites form from these newish semi-synthetic THC analogs. And the problem seems to be worse in states like Texas or Alabama that don't provide regulated access to delta-9 products.

Cannabis chemistry is complex, but simply paying attention to what you're ingesting is a prudent way to avoid a bad time. But while some people argue that perhaps cannabis shouldn't come in candy form at all, education on this issue can be lacking, so it's not always someone's fault if they overdo it and didn't know better. Just as beer bottles have labels warning consumers to drink responsibly, edible consumption requires the same level of personal duty, but better regulation is also critical.

By Troy Farah

Troy Farah is Salon's science and health editor specializing in drug policy and pandemics.

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