Cannabis Edibles: Why So Unpredictable?

By Gooey Rabinski | October 07, 2015

Edibles are all the rage in states like Oregon and Washington where recreational cannabis was recently legalized and robust markets for cannabis and cannabis-infused products are growing at a rapid pace. New methods have emerged for extracting the cannabinoids and terpenes from cannabis plants, such as closed loop laboratory systems incorporating industrial extraction techniques involving solvents like butane and carbon dioxide or extremely high pressure and heat. After extraction, the resulting gooey oils and concentrates are sometimes further processed or purified and then injected into a wide variety of foods, confections, and candy — or the ingredients thereof.

Negative Press and Ignorance

Despite all this high-tech mechanical might, edibles continue to remain elusive, and even arguably dangerous, in terms of titration (dosing), high type, and potency. Stories abound in the popular media regarding how both teens and adults have overdone it in terms of the amount of psychoactive cannabinoids they ingested through their gastrointestinal system. The most famous case, that of New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, involved Dowd traveling to Denver and experimenting with edibles she obtained at a local dispensary, described in painfully and sometimes embarrassingly subjective detail in Dowd’s June 2014 article “Don’t Harsh Our Mellow, Dude”.

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Back in her hotel room, Dowd proceeded to get thoroughly pounced by pot, clobbered on cannabis, and every other cheap cliche that journalists and bloggers could toss at the incident and Dowd’s accompanying newspaper story at the time. She wrote about her experience with a caramel-chocolate flavored candy bar after she, in her own words, “nibbled off the end and then, when nothing happened, nibbled some more,” which “looked so innocent, like the Sky Bars I used to love as a child.” The journalist continued:

“I strained to remember where I was or even what I was wearing, touching my green corduroy jeans and staring at the exposed-brick wall. As my paranoia deepened, I became convinced that I had died and no one was telling me.”

Regulations Begin to Emerge

Recently legalized markets for recreational consumers, such as Denver and Portland, have forced the hands of city and state regulators and other stakeholders within this emerging industry to define doses, the medical term that, in the food-speak world of agriculture, means a serving.

In Colorado, state regulators have defined an edibles serving as 10 grams of THC, the psychoactive cannabinoid that is responsible for a variety of positive medical effects, in addition to being the source of euphoria for those open-minded souls seeking to alleviate anxiety and enhance their lifestyles. However, while this is a serving size, it doesn’t define how easily a consumer can go too far in terms of the consumption of edibles. That’s because a serving size is more theory than reality.

Those wishing to consume greater quantities for recreational or medicinal purposes obviously can eat multiple servings, typically available in a single protein bar, cookie, drink, muffin, or mint tin. Popular options available in many dispensaries and retail stores offer indica, sativa, and hybrid THC varieties of chocolate bars and other edibles, typically ranging from 50 to 100 mg per package, but sometimes reaching as high as 300 mg or more.

Sick Patients and Tolerance Building

Unfortunately, sometimes very sick patients, especially those suffering severe pain and nausea (often from chemotherapy for cancer or HIV/AIDS drugs), require especially strong edibles or concentrates to adequately deal with their symptoms or the side effects of the drugs they must take to stay alive. The problem, in most cases, is when medical-grade mega-doses come into the hands of casual recreational cannabis consumers, particularly newbies.

Another problem is tolerance building in extremely ill patients who use potent edibles to counteract pain on a daily basis. Such patients can require a dose that is several times stronger than what would be appropriate for a recreational consumer, even one with years of experience.

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Jessica LeRoux, owner and operator of Twirling Hippy Confections, one of the oldest edibles companies in Colorado, defended those who consume hyper-potent edibles to deal with pain and nausea.

Said LeRoux:

“They’re not eating these for the euphoric effect. They’re intended to get you through the day when you’re dealing with pain.”

She said her company has created edibles for patients with severe pain that have been as potent as 150 times the serving size suggested by the state. “We’ve been making customized cakes that can go anywhere from 500 to 1,500 milligrams [of THC],” said LeRoux.

Edibles Less Predictable

However, along with the pleasure of consuming sweet, sugary treats, edibles deliver a less predictable high than smoking, vaping, or use of tinctures. This lack of predictability includes time to onset, as well as its potency and “legs” (length of the psychoactive effect). In addition, will an edible be energizing and cerebral, like a sativa strain of cannabis when smoked or vaped? Or will it deliver couchlock, ravenous munchies, and eventually slumber, like a stereotypical indica?

Possibly because they do not involve smoking or even vaping — and the health risk stigma attached to inhaling a foreign substance — edibles have become the cannabis form of choice for thousands of newbies who are trying marijuana for the first time or who have very little experience. With even carbonated sodas and other beverages having emerged onto the market, including the latest rage, cannabis infused coffee, there’s no shortage of ways for both recreational and medical patients to dose themselves with cannabinoids like CBD and THC.

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Edibles are also an especially suitable landing zone for robust terpenes like limonenepinene, and myrcene, aromatic and medically therapeutic chemicals found throughout nature, not just in female cannabis plants. [More about myrcene in the Will You Sleep? section below.]

Inhaling vs. Eating

Despite a variety of home remedies to combat becoming too high and spun out, there are a number of distinct reasons why even seasoned, intelligent fans of edibles are unable to reliably predict their strength.

First, eating cannabinoids like THC, CBD, and CBG is considerably less efficient than smoking or vaping them. This makes onset slower and effect longer. For most adults, who bear a certain amount of school, job, or family responsibilities, being out of commission for half a day or more isn’t a viable option (this is one reason that the one to four hour high of smoked or vaped cannabis is so popular).

Second, decarboxylation, caused when heat or flame touch cannabis, in a short period of time causes certain rapid chemical changes in cannabis. When cannabis is decarboxylated via cooking or baking, however, and then “stored” within something like cannabutter or an edible itself, the process may be very different — and produce noticeably skewed results in terms of medical efficacy, potency, and high type.

In addition, cannabis, when smoked or vaped, is absorbed via the lungs and delivered to the neighboring heart, where it is pumped directly to the brain. This is convenient, given that the brain is the area of the body that contains the most CB1 receptors, the only welcoming recipients for the THC molecule and its euphoric, psychoactive effects. Compare this path to that of a THC-infused brownie that is eaten and makes the significantly longer and slower passage from the esophagus to the stomach to the liver, eventually entering the bloodstream to complete the long route home to the brain.

Some leading researchers and neuroscientists emphasize that the reactions of different people to smoked and vaped cannabis are less variable than they are to the same cannabinoids when eaten. Regardless of the exact cannabinoid and terpene profiles created and immediately ingested during smoking and vaping, the gastrointestinal path of edibles means those cannabinoids that are present are digested and chemically altered in ways that are sometimes dramatically different from more rapid onset methods, including tinctures.

Up or Down?

When vacationing in Vancouver several years ago, the author was approached by a confident Canadian woman on roller skates at a cannabis legalization rally cum pot festival who was selling edibles in the form of large sugar cookies. Some were labeled sativa, while others promised an indica effect. Some small-scale edibles producers and vendors are focused on the high type of the cannabis they are providing to their customers and are capable of having their products live up to the hype — but many are not.

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Many mid- to large-scale edibles manufacturers purchase unidentified trim or do not segregate what they purchase from large cultivators, meaning that their products are best given the fuzzy label “hybrid” and that it is impossible to predict whether the effect of a particular cookie, brownie, or non-carbonated drink might be uplifting, cerebral, and energizing — helping one drive through their day in a productive sativa groove — or pain relieving, super-relaxing, and couchlocking, like a stereotypical indica.

Up and coming Denver-based edibles manufacturer Dixie Brands, which recently expanded its distribution from Colorado to California, says that segregating trim from different strains to know if it will deliver a sativa or indica effect is a waste of effort based on the nature of the extraction process employed, which derives a concentrated oil from the plant’s leaves and, more specifically, the resinous trichomes.

Shellene Suemori, science director for Dixie Brands, said the process of extraction into a concentrated oil, when starting with commercial trim, eliminates any whole-plant differences between a sativa and an indica. Other unique characteristics may also be lost, typically resulting from diminished terpenes. Said Suemori:

“You can take a high-grade sativa strain and process it, and then take a high-grade indica strain and process it, and both of those oils are going to look almost identical on the lab results page.”

Will You Sleep?

One of the most common questions asked of a budtender or friend when one is considering wolfing down a potentially potent edible is, “Will it put me to sleep?” This depends on many factors, including one’s body weight, if they are sleep deprived, their metabolism, and how recently — and how much — they have eaten.

What truly determines if one will sleep following consumption of an edible, which typically wouldn’t occur for a couple of hours following eating it, is the presence of terpenes like myrcene. According to Steep Hill Labs, the level of myrcene determines if a particular strain is indica or sativa and, thus, if it will cause insomnia or lure one into a nap in the middle of the afternoon.

Steep Hill Labs has gone on record stating that cannabis strains that contain very low amounts of myrcene (below 0.5 percent) are sativas, meaning they are more likely to energize, spur creativity, and curb appetite. Strains of cannabis with more myrcene are categorized as indica and typically deliver symptoms that include appetite stimulation, couchlock, and a relaxing body buzz. However, one must also recognize the delicate interaction of cannabinoids and terpenes that make each cannabis strain unique, something called the entourage effect. According to the laboratory:

“If a sample has over 0.5% myrcene, it will have indica, or “couchlock” effects. If a sample has less than 0.5% myrcene, it will have the soaring sativa effect. It is simply the amount of myrcene that is in the sample that dictates how [one] will be affected.”

Thus, one should seek out reputable, reliable, and legal edibles that have undergone batch testing and that feature accurate, detailed labeling to identify the levels of major cannabinoids and terpenes. Those who desire an edible as an analgesic (pain killer) with more of a sedative effect or as a sleeping aid should seek out edibles that have higher amounts of myrcene. Those seeking edibles that are more appropriate for morning or mid-day use and that won’t slow their productivity or cause an unintentional nap should purchase items from dispensaries that are low in myrcene and also contain little of the cannabinoid CBN, a known sleep aid.

Terpenes as Traffic Cops

Because it is the presence or absence of terpenes that determines the exact effects of cannabinoids like THC and the particular high type, any extraction, infusion, or general processing method that changes the percentages of various terpenes will have a profound effect on the characteristics of the resulting edibles in which it is infused.

But what if it isn’t cost effective to maintain terpene counts throughout extraction, processing, packaging, and distribution? The result, of course, would be a complete lack of ability to label a mass-produced edible as indica or sativa. This is one reason that many companies label their edible products according to THC/CBD ratio and number of milligrams of each — but include no reference to where a particular product pegs on the indica-to-sativa scale. Although, technically, they certainly could be simply ensuring that the lab analysis includes the percentages of terpenes like myrcene.

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To combat the loss of cannabis terpenes during the extracting and processing stages, some companies have begun injecting their edibles with terpenes like limonene, adding not only flavor and aroma, but also a potentially dramatic shift in the exact high type and energy level of a particular edible product. While the psychoactive and medicinal effect of this relatively new technique remains uncertain, generally speaking, more terpenes are better than fewer.

Garbage In, Garbage Out

There’s an old saying in the computer and IT biz: Garbage in, garbage out. Basically, it means that “dirty” or corrupt data entering a component or operating system doesn’t magically repair itself. Crap data going in equals some form of crap data coming out. Likewise, edibles manufacturers of all sizes and types are limited in the quality of the products they can produce and sell by the cannabis that they either cultivate or purchase.

For example, trim from cultivators that is stored for too long a period allows various cannabinoids and terpenes to degrade. Unfortunately, cannabis plant trim often sits in storage for a period long enough to significantly change its characteristics, and not for the better. For this reason, some edibles manufacturers, like The Growing Kitchen, have elected to abandon commercial trim and use only cannabis flowers (buds) in their edible products.

By going with freshly harvested and dried cannabis flowers (often from their own gardens, helping ensure quality and whole-plant characteristics), such top-shelf brands are differentiating themselves by proving not only a more reliable and consistent product, but also one that can be, when necessary, more potent and actually retain the characteristics of a sativa or indica — depending on the processing method employed.

THC, the cannabinoid responsible for the euphoric high of marijuana, is stored in the plant in an acidic form called THC-A that delivers no high whatsoever. It is only after the application of heat and decarboxylation, via combustion or vaporization, that THC’s acidic form drops a carbon dioxide molecule to gain its infamous role.

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Likewise, THC-A produces CBN, a great cure for insomnia. In fact, it is the degradation or THC-A that results in CBN. A useful mental model is to think of CBN as stale THC-A. In fact, the chemical formula for CBN is nearly identical to that of THC. The difference? CBN is THC minus only four hydrogen atoms. It is the loss of these atoms during exposure to air, when oxidation occurs, that produces CBN. This is why patients keep their medicine in air-tight jars and answers the age-old question, does cannabis lose its potency over time? The short answer: Yes. But mostly only when exposed to air for prolonged periods.

Of course, one would be remiss to focus exclusively on the cannabis-related contents of edibles like THC, CBD, and myrcene. The non-cannabis ingredients of any canna-infused product are also critical to its quality, how easily it is digested, and even its high type and medical efficacy. Said Torrin Panico, founder of Craft, a Colorado edibles and concentrates company:

“A lot of these edible companies are working with people who know a lot about cannabis, but aren’t necessarily chefs. Knowing how to cook plays a large part in your final product; you need to understand the science of food, along with the science of cannabis…”

Start Low, Go Slow

The best advice for both residents of states where edibles are legal and the tourists traveling there to experiment with a variety of legal cannabis products is to “start low and go slow.” Experimentation will help educate consumers about how their particular physiology and metabolism deal with different types and brands of edibles.

Also, limiting one’s purchase to reputable, major brands obtained from clean, professional dispensaries and retail outlets that employ trained and knowledgeable budtenders goes a long way toward ensuring the potency, safety, and high type delivered by a particular cannabis-infused edible. Avoiding the black market helps ensure not only quality, but also an edible that will be less likely to deliver surprises.

In a world increasingly populated by alternate means of consuming cannabinoids and terpenes, a wide array of edibles is available, especially in states where recreational cannabis is legal. From cookies to brownies to hard candy to vegan specialties like THC smoothies and even pot-infused coffee, there’s an edible that is sure to please everyone. One should simply do everything possible to fully understand and, thus, predict the potency and effects of any canna-food they consume.

Gooey Rabinski

Gooey Rabinski is the author of Understanding Medical Marijuana.

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