Doctors in Canada are hoping to harsh your buzz a little when it comes to cannabis edibles. In a new paper out Monday, they argue that people have plenty of misconceptions about how safe edibles really are and warn that first-time users are especially likely to take too much for their own good.
The paper, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, is timely. Though Canada fully legalized cannabis in October 2018 and storefront businesses began selling cannabis products the following January, it was only this past October that edibles were made legal as well. In the U.S. meanwhile, Illinois recently became the 11th state to legalize cannabis recreationally, and several presidential candidates have pledged to legalize it nationally should they win the election this November.
But just because everyone’s starting to agree that cannabis isn’t the devil’s lettuce doesn’t mean that it’s completely harmless either. In U.S. states where cannabis has been fully legalized, for example, more people are heading to the emergency room with rapid heartbeats, anxiety, and vomiting because of cannabis use—and edibles are much more likely to send someone there. A study last year, for instance, found that 10 percent of pot-related ER visits in Colorado were caused by edibles, despite the fact that they only made up 0.32 percent of total cannabis sales in the state.
According to co-author of the new study Lawrence Loh, a clinician and public health researcher at the University of Toronto, these potential harms can be amplified when people take edibles, since our bodies process the drug differently than when it’s smoked or vaped.
“Because ingested cannabis needs to be digested prior to absorption, the onset of effects is typically delayed, which might lead someone to consume more than intended early on only to experience symptoms consistent with overconsumption later on,” Loh told Gizmodo via email, adding that the effects might be worse for first-time users or the elderly.
These symptoms, while not likely to ever be life-threatening, can be extremely distressing. Edibles consumers and doctors have told stories of themselves or others coming down with racing hearts, anxiety, and even psychosis in rare cases. There’s also the danger of people taking edibles when they didn’t intend to.
“The other concern is accidental consumption by children and pets. Children in particular have differences in metabolism that make them susceptible to overconsumption, and often times may also be drawn to cannabis edibles that resemble non-cannabis treats (e.g. gummies or brownies),” Loh said.
Loh and his co-author point out that not only do many people believe edibles are risk free, they also think of them as a wonder drug for things like boosting your mood, lowering anxiety, or helping you sleep better—despite the evidence for those benefits being very mixed at best.
Obviously, there are good arguments for legalizing and continuing to study cannabis as a treatment for certain medical conditions. But Loh wants people to be more aware of its risks and for doctors to start asking about people’s cannabis use, much like they do about our history of smoking or drinking. That’s the best way to counsel people about using it safely, like keeping it away from kids and pets, and to spot any potential patterns of misuse among different groups of people.
“For those who do consume, and have never done so before, we recommend consuming licensed products, to avoid the possible issues linked with the ongoing availability of illegal edibles that may be contaminated with mold, pesticide residues, or other drugs,” Loh said. “We also recommend proceeding slowly, even if no particular effects are felt initially, and consuming with others around who may be able to assist in the event of an unforeseen response.”