Edibles & THC Overdose: Dangers & What to Do

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It is possible to overdose on the THC found in edibles.

Edibles are food and drinks that are infused with marijuana and contain the psychoactive ingredient THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). Instead of smoking marijuana, you eat or drink an edible. These products can have varying amounts of THC, and it can be hard to know exactly how much is in whatever you are ingesting.

Edibles also can take between one and three hours to take effect, meaning that it is easy to consume too much and experience an overdose.1 An overdose on THC from an edible is not likely to be fatal, but it can be very uncomfortable and cause serious psychological and physical side effects.2

In the event of a THC overdose, paranoia, hallucinations, and delusions are common.2 It can be helpful to have a trusted person helping you to stay calm. It is beneficial to stay in a safe and quiet place and to remain as relaxed as possible. For serious reactions, call 911.

Signs of a THC Overdose

THC is a psychoactive substance that binds to cannabinoid receptors in the brain, causing relaxation and mind-altering effects.4 When smoked, these effects occur almost immediately. When ingesting products that contain THC, such as edibles, it can take a few hours to feel the effects.

Because of this, it can be easy to keep eating more and more to try to feel the effects. When this happens, you have often ingested too much.

An overdose can cause the following symptoms:2

  • Anxiety
  • Agitation
  • Impaired motor control
  • Extreme confusion
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Paranoia
  • Raised blood pressure
  • Severe nausea and/or vomiting
  • Panic
  • Delusions
  • Hallucinations

It is often perceived that edibles are “safer” than smoking marijuana, but this is not always the case, and it can actually be easier to overdose on THC from an edible.

The effects of THC from an edible typically peak around 4 hours and can last up to 12 hours or more in total.3 An overdose is not usually life-threatening, but you will often have to wait it out, up to a full day, for the effects to completely subside.

Help for an Edible Overdose

In the event of an overdose on THC edibles:

  • Stay calm.
  • Find a quiet, relaxing, and safe space.
  • Try to rest or get some sleep if possible.
  • Use a trusted friend or person to help keep you calm.
  • Remember that even though it feels like you may not be able to breathe, you can, and this will pass in time.

Overdose symptoms from an edible can be more intense and significant than from smoking marijuana. If you are experiencing serious physical side effects, such as uncontrollable vomiting, high blood pressure, and an irregular heart rate, call 911 or seek medical attention for advice.

What Are Edibles?

Edibles are products that you can eat or drink that contain marijuana and the active ingredient THC. The most common form of edibles are brownies, but they can also be found in the following forms:1

  • Cookies
  • Drinks
  • Gummies
  • Chocolate
  • Popcorn
  • Cooking oils
  • Suckers

When you smoke marijuana, the THC enters your bloodstream rapidly and the “high” is felt within minutes. Edibles are ingested and therefore metabolized through the digestive tract, so it takes longer for these products to create the psychoactive effects.3 This can also make the high more intense, as the liver converts the THC into a stronger form.

Since everyone’s metabolism is different, the time it takes for an edible to take effect can vary, and the intensity of these effects can vary too. First-time users, children, and older adults are the most at risk for an overdose on an edible.5

Edible Use Increasing

Edible use is on the rise with the legalization of marijuana for recreational use in more and more states. Studies of adolescents show that edible use is increasing among high school seniors, while the number of students smoking marijuana is dropping.6

Teenage edible users are also more likely to use them on a daily basis than smokers are.6 Edibles are often found in candy form, which can be appealing to this age group.

Edible use among senior citizens in the United States, those ages 65 and older, doubled between 2015 and 2018.7

The issue with rising edible use in both of these age groups is altered metabolism. Children are not yet fully developed and can have different metabolism rates than adults, while older adults have slowed metabolism rates that come with aging.

THC Dosage Control in Edibles

The dosage of THC in an edible can vary and be difficult to control. According to Colorado Public Health, one edible dose is 10 milligrams (mg), but an edible often contains more than one dose.8 It is important to read the labels on edible products and understand the serving size and dosage contained before ingesting anything.

When someone is taking an edible for the first time, it’s advised to start slow and only ingest a small amount of product with the lowest amount of THC possible. Many edibles are homemade. Then, it is even harder to know the amount of THC contained. Remember it takes time for the THC to work (up to a few hours), so be patient and wait before taking more.

Hazards of Edibles & THC Levels

Emergency department (ED) visits related to edibles are on the rise. A study in Colorado between 2014 and 2016 found that more than 10 percent of ED visits involving cannabis involved edibles.9 These visits for an edible overdose were more likely to involve intoxication, cardiovascular issues, and severe psychiatric symptoms than visits related to smoking marijuana.

The THC in edibles is metabolized differently than it is when smoking marijuana. This can lead to more prolonged and intense side effects. It can also interact more significantly with other drugs alcohol, or medications.

High doses of edibles can also lead to cyclical vomiting syndrome, which in turn can cause dehydration and cardiovascular concerns.10 In these cases, a visit to the hospital is necessary, as you may need intravenous (IV) fluids to rehydrate you.

The dosage of THC in an edible can be hard to manage and difficult to control. Each person’s metabolism is unique, and different doses and mechanisms of marijuana use (e.g., smoking versus ingesting) can change how the THC impacts you and your system. Negative psychiatric side effects, such as anxiety, paranoia, and even a psychotic reaction involving agitation, hallucinations, and delusions, can occur with an edible overdose.11

It is much easier to overdose on THC with an edible than by smoking marijuana. As a result, all edible products should be used with extreme caution.

SOURCES

1 Drug Alert: Marijuana Edibles. Just Think Twice: U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Retrieved April 2021 from https://www.justthinktwice.gov/article/drug-alert-marijuana-edibles

2 (March 2018). Is It Possible to ‘Overdose’ or Have a ‘Bad Reaction’ to Marijuana? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Retrieved April 2021 from https://www.cdc.gov/marijuana/faqs/overdose-bad-reaction.html

3 (2019). 7 Things You Need to Know About Edible Cannabis. Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA). Retrieved April 2021 from https://www.ccsa.ca/sites/default/files/2019-06/CCSA-7-Things-About-Edible-Cannabis-2019-en.pdf

4 (July 2020). Marijuana Research Report: How Does Marijuana Produce Its Effects? National Institute on Drug Abuse. Retrieved April 2021 from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/marijuana/how-does-marijuana-produce-its-effects

5 (November 2016). Tasty THC: Promises and Challenges of Cannabis Edibles. RTI Press. Retrieved April 2021 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5260817/

6 (April 2020). Marijuana Vaping and Edible Use Increasing Among High School Seniors. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Retrieved April 2021 from https://www.drugabuse.gov/news-events/science-highlight/marijuana-vaping-edible-use-increasing-among-high-school-seniors

7 (February 2020). Marijuana Use Is Rising Sharply Among Seniors Ove 65, Study Says, and There Are Serious Risks. CNN. Retrieved April 2021 from https://www.cnn.com/2020/02/24/health/weed-marijuana-seniors-wellness/index.html

8 (2021). Marijuana Edibles. Denver Public Health. Retrieved April 2021 from https://www.denverpublichealth.org/community-health-promotion/substance-misuse/marijuana-edible-facts

9 (April 2019). Acute Illness Associated With Cannabis Use, by Route of Exposure. Annals of Internal Medicine. Retrieved April 2021 from https://www.acpjournals.org/doi/10.7326/M18-2809

10 (March 2019). Marijuana-Related ER Visits Rising Dramatically, Edibles Sparking Particular Concerns. UC Health Today. Retrieved April 2021 from https://www.uchealth.org/today/marijuana-related-er-visits-rising-dramatically-edibles-spraking-particular-concerns/

11 (March 2018). How Is Eating and Drinking Foods that Contain Marijuana (Edibles) Different From Smoking Marijuana? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Retrieved April 2021 from https://www.cdc.gov/marijuana/faqs/edibles.html

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