March 16, 2019 7:00 am

‘It’s a totally different drug’: Why edibles feel different from smoking cannabis

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Edibles take longer to kick in than smoked cannabis — one reason why people sometimes take too much by accident. The effects also last longer.

But there are chemical reasons why the high is often experienced differently, a B.C. cannabis breeder explains.

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“It feels very different,” says Ryan Lee. “People say it’s more of a mind effect when you smoke it, it’s more of a body stone when you take it in through your gut.”

One reason, he says, is that when the digestive system deals with it, the liver turns the THC into a somewhat different chemical, 11-hydroxy THC.

“It’s literally a different drug. By the time it gets to the site of action in your brain, it’s a different molecule from the one taken in through your lungs.”

While THC-infused foods and beverages won’t be available until October, edible products like oils and gel caps have been available since legalization.

The other way in which edibles differ from dried flower is that the process of extracting the THC for edibles destroys the terpenes.

WATCH: Canada unveils proposed rules for edible cannabis

Terpenes are the chemicals that make one strain of cannabis smell like lemons and another like diesel fuel. They’re often said to have psychoactive effects as well being at the root of why one strain is uplifting and another relaxing.

Science is so far silent on whether these effects are real. As with many aspects of cannabis, prohibition has made it hard to study.

READ MORE: Linalool, Isopulegol — Behind the oddly-named terpenes that affect how your pot affects you

“Have we run clinical studies with THC plus limonene or THC plus myrcene or pinene and shown in a statistically significant manner that yes, these things have an effect, and here is the effect? We haven’t done that.”

“I think there’s enough anecdotal evidence to say that they do.”

Legal cannabis food and beverages won’t be sold until at least October. However, grey-market edibles, with varying potency, have been available.

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Their potency shouldn’t be taken at face value, Lee cautions. It’s quite difficult to dose edibles consistently, and grey-market makers often can’t.

For example, doctors investigating an elderly New Brunswick man’s heart attack after he ate most of a lollipop labelled as containing 90 mg of THC took the label at face value, but since they didn’t test it independently, we’ll probably never know how much he actually consumed.

“We worked with clients who made edibles, and they would bring their edibles in, and you’d test five of them and they would all have different levels of cannabinoids in them. One would test much hotter than the other.”

Some people have found the effects far stronger than they expected.

A study by Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers published in December found that vaping dry flower had more powerful effects on inexperienced users than traditional smoking.

(Devices to vape dry flower are widely available; oil for vaping may be sold by November.)

WATCH: 3 pros and 3 cons of eating marijuana edibles

Lee attributes this in part to the fact that less THC is wasted in a vape device than with smoking. As well, the different temperatures on the device will deliver different psychoactive effects.

“At lower doses, you seem to get larger doses of terpenes relative to cannabinoids, whereas if you turn the temperature up you have more of an equal ratio of the two. The terpenes become volatile at lower boiling points. If your temperature is low enough, you’re taking these big doses of terpenes with very little cannabinoids.”

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