Eating marijuana

Dear Alice,

Is it harmful, under any circumstances, to eat marijuana instead of smoking it?

Dear Reader,

If by eating marijuana, you’re referring to eating products infused with it (edibles), it’s difficult to say how harmful this is compared to smoking. However, research does suggest that the way in which marijuana enters the body (via smoking or eating) can result in key differences in how quickly it takes effect, how long the effects are felt, and the risk of unpleasant side effects.  

Some people may enjoy the feeling of smoking marijuana and the effects it brings, but for those who may not like smoke getting in their eyes or inhaling smoke into their lungs, eating edibles may be a more desirable option. Edibles are any foods or drinks that are infused with cannabis oils that contain tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). This is a psychoactive chemical compound which, when ingested, interacts with the brain and is responsible for the ‘high’ associated with marijuana. Also, some users may prefer this method to bypass the risks of smoking, as research has found that marijuana smoke contains similar carcinogens as those found in cigarette smoke.

So, what kind of experiences might a marijuana user have if they choose edibles over smoking? Short answer: there is no one size fits all experience! Why? Well, there are some key differences and factors to consider:

  • How THC is metabolized: The THC found in marijuana is scientifically known as delta-9-THC and is small enough to travel directly through the bloodstream to the brain. So, when an individual smokes marijuana, the delta-9-THC travels directly across the blood-brain barrier (BBB) to quickly create a high. On the other hand, with edibles, the delta-9-THC is metabolized to 11-hydroxy-THC. When compared to delta-9-THC, 11-hydroxy-THC is better able to cross the BBB, resulting in a more potent high. In other words: due to certain metabolic processes, consuming edibles results in a potentially stronger high compared to what’s experienced when smoking (depending on the amount of THC ingested).
  • Onset and duration of effects or the marijuana ‘high’: There are differences in the time it takes for the marijuana to take effect, as well as the duration of those effects, depending on the method of use. When smoking marijuana, individuals typically experience effects within 10 minutes, and the effects may last up to 60 minutes. With edibles, the effects usually start within about 30 to 90 minutes and peak around 2 to 4 hours after they’ve been consumed. However, there’s more to it than just time; other individual factors can impact the ‘high,’ including weight, sex assigned at birth, metabolism, eating habits, and amount of THC ingested. These factors can affect the onset and duration of the ‘high’.
  • Difficulty gauging the amount of active ingredient: There’s a lack of standardization of edibles, particularly with estimating how much THC they actually contain. This, in turn, can result in individuals accidentally consuming far more THC than desired. Due to the delay in the onset of effects from edibles, some folks may mistakenly believe they haven’t eaten enough of the edibles to experience their desired high. Because of this, they may continue eating edibles. In these situations, users may become progressively high and experience altered sense perception, slower reaction times, enhanced relaxation, and a reduction in muscle coordination. By the time they experience a stronger high, they can be exposed to too much THC at once, become undesirably high, and experience greater unpleasant side effects of marijuana.

Now, you might be wondering, what might it feel like to consume too much marijuana? Experiences may include:

  • Disorientation
  • Feeling delirious or feverish
  • Hangover or stupor
  • Lethargy the following day
  • Paranoia, acute psychosis, or panic attacks while high (which is more common in new marijuana users and users with existing psychiatric conditions)

The good news is that, currently, there have been no reported deaths related to over-consumption of marijuana. The not-so-good news is that there's no escaping the unpleasant side effects (which could also include dry mouth, blood-shot eyes, decreased short-term memory, and increased heart rate and blood pressure) until the body breaks down the THC. This long-lasting effect could also be detrimental when engaging in activities that require concentration and coordination, such as schoolwork, driving, or operating heavy machinery, which is even more challenging or risky while under the influence.

Now, much of what was just covered relates specifically to THC and its varied routes of delivery. However, cannabidiol (CBD) is another component of marijuana that’s rising in popularity. This is because CBD is non-psychoactive, meaning it doesn’t cause a ‘high,’ but it can still provide other effects of marijuana that may be desirable. The most studied of these effects is its ability to reduce anxiety. While research on this is promising, more is needed to determine proper dosing, long-term effects, and any additional therapeutic uses. Despite this lack of rigorous validation, many products with CBD are available and can be found in the form of infused food and drinks, vaporized solutions, ointments and creams, and concentrated oils. While many are marketed as exclusively containing CBD, one study showed that close to 70 percent of CBD extracts sold online are mislabeled. Additionally, 26 percent of products had less CBD than indicated, 42 percent had more CBD than indicated, and 21 percent of products had detected levels of THC. Therefore, while CBD may seem appealing for its supposed effects and lack of a ‘high,’ it's wise to note that many products that claim it as an ingredient may be mislabeled both in dosage and expected benefits.

Whether investigating THC or CBD, more research is necessary to better understand their impacts on health and further explore consumer perceptions. However, additional studies investigating these issues could be challenging; marijuana is a Schedule I drug and research associated with the substance is restricted in the United States. In general, though, the greater the dosage of marijuana eaten or smoked, the greater the risk of side effects. If you're considering consuming marijuana, it’s helpful to also think about: What method of delivery best fits your lifestyle? How long and how strongly would you like to feel these effects? What are the legal parameters about use and possession of such substances where you live? As you ponder these questions, a search through some of the Q&As in the Go Ask Alice! Alcohol and Other Drug archives or a consultation with a health care provider may provide further insight.

While a lengthy response, hopefully this helps providing some insight on marijuana use!

Last updated Jan 15, 2021
Originally published Apr 13, 2007