Edibles are an increasing share of the marijuana market, but we really don’t know that much about how they work yet.
The popularity of marijuana edibles has been one of the big surprises of the seismic culture shift we are undergoing around weed. Maybe it’s because of the increasing social disdain around smoking anything, or maybe it’s part of that whole foodie thing, but edibles are big business.
In Colorado alone, more than five million edible marijuana products were sold (and presumably consumed) last year. Edibles didn’t go on sale in Washington state until mid-year last year, but they’re reporting going gangbuster up there, too. And they make up an increasing share of the market in medical marijuana states, particularly California.
But edibles can be problematic. People unfamiliar with them get can way too messed up—witness Maureen Dowd and her infamous marijuana candy bar episode, or, more tragically, the case of the college student who leapt to his death after consuming them.
Part of the problem is simple ignorance on the part of naïve edibles users, but part of the problem is that even the most sophisticated cannabis aficionados don’t know that much about how and why they work.
Here, with a tip of the hat to The Cannabist, are five reasons it’s hard to be sure what you’re getting into when you bite into that marijuana munchie:
1. Eating Pot Isn’t the Same As Smoking Pot
There are a couple of important differences. First, when you smoke pot, the cannabinoids in it go into your lungs and thence directly into your bloodstream, getting that high-inducing THC into your system in a hurry, while if you eat it, it is digested and passed through the liver before entering the bloodstream.
That’s why you get high right away smoking pot, but the effects of eating it take a half hour or more to come on. People get themselves in trouble by eating some, waiting awhile, and then eating more because they don’t feel high yet, only to end up getting slammed by a double dose after first one, then the other kicks in. Be patient.
But in addition to differences in the rapidity of the onset of the high, the method of ingestion can cause changes in the quality of the high. When you smoke pot, the cannabinoids in it are decarboxylated—turned to smoke—when the flame ignites the bud, but with edibles, that decarboxylation has taken place long before, during the process of extracting the cannabinoids from the raw plant material. Depending on the method of extraction, that process could alter the composition of the cannabinoids in a way that simply smoking them doesn’t.
2. Most edibles don’t come from individual plants
When you smoke a bud of marijuana, you are smoking actual plant material from an actual, individual plant. Or if you buy a big bag of weed, you’re either getting buds from one plant or buds from plants that are the same variety (and are generally identical clones.)
But when you’re consuming edibles, you’re typically consuming your pot in the form of cannabis oils added to the food recipes. Since the buds are desired in the smoking market, edibles manufacturers use the clippings from trimming—previously considered a waste product—to make their oils. And not only does that trim not come from a single plant, it doesn’t even come from the same strain or even the same sub-species, indica or sativa.
It may be theoretically possible to limit batches of trim to one strain, but that’s not how it’s done now. Instead, manufacturers buy trim in bulk from multiple growers, who bag up the clippings without regard to strain or type. You won’t find edibles products advertising “OG Kush brownies” or “Sour Diesel Gumdrops” because the trim they buy is undifferentiated, so you can’t count on any strain-specific effects with these products.
3. And trim isn’t the good stuff, anyway
Trim used to be considered a waste product for a reason: While it contains cannabinoids, it doesn’t have nearly as much as the buds themselves. It can get you high, just not as high (or it takes more to get as high). Using trim as the basis for the cannabis in edibles is like mass-producing cheap vodka from potatoes, as opposed to making a fine whiskey from carefully selected and cared for grains.
And because trim is, even now, a relatively low-value by-product of bud production, it doesn’t get treated with great care or attention by growers. Bags of trim can contain hairs, rubber bands, and other debris, and they can sit around on shelves for weeks or months while growers tend to more profitable matters. The longer it sits, the more the THC degrades into other, less high-making, cannabinoid compounds.
4. It’s not just the weed—it’s the food, too
Part of food science is understanding how different foods interact with each other, such as the synergistic impact of eating olive oil with your tomatoes in helping the body absorb the nutrients. People manufacturing marijuana edibles have to be not only cannabis scientists, but also food scientists.
The problem is, the science isn’t there yet. While there’s powerful anecdotal evidence that marijuana acts as a catalyst with other herbs, making their effects stronger, real clinical scientific evidence is probably a decade or more down the road.
5. The science of edibles has some catching up to do
Despite roadblocks to research in this country, scientific interest in marijuana has been accelerating here and abroad for decades now. But that research has been aimed primarily at smoked marijuana, and we know way more about how smoked marijuana works on the brain and body than we do about marijuana edibles.
That’s because popular interest in edibles is a very recent thing. It’s a market segment that bubbled up in medical marijuana states in the past couple of decades, but didn’t really take off until legalization, particularly in Colorado, gave it a giant push.
The studies on how edibles work and their differences with smoked buds, as well as studies on different types of extraction methods, variations in the plant material used, and the types of foods being used are all to come.
In the meantime, it’s up to consumers to exercise reasonable care. Start small. Wait long enough for it to kick in. See how you feel. Then proceed with caution.