For better or worse, alcohol has a long-entrenched role in western culture.
As cannabis has been treated more tolerantly in recent years and was fully legalized last fall, it’s become more available to a group of people whose habits and assumptions have been formed by alcohol consumption.
And that has its pitfalls, an expert explains.
“Relying on experience for alcohol with cannabis is really quite a failure because it’s not the same experience,” says B.C.-based cannabis breeder Ryan Lee.
“We don’t have a very good context in society for teaching people how to use (cannabis) and we kind of let them out into the world to experiment with it assuming that it’s just like alcohol, and it’s not — it’s a different substance.”
Lee is the founder of Chemovar Health, a cannabis genetics company.
Here are four expectations that more or less work with alcohol but are misleading with cannabis:
Expecting it to work similarly in different people
Two people can share a joint and find that it makes one of them chatty and hyper and the other more sedated. Alcohol tends to have much more uniform effects across different people.
“People have this genetic variation kind of built into the species, and that results in differently functioning enzymes in different people,” Lee says.
“We see that there’s a huge variability in how intoxicated people get, how off-balance people get,” he explains. “It’s really not a one-to-one thing like we see with alcohol. It really varies from person to person.”
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Expecting quick feedback (with edibles)
One classic mistake new users make with edibles is expecting prompt feedback.
It works pretty well with alcohol if you’re paying attention. Should I pour a bit more wine? Or set it aside for now? Your body should give you the information you need if you stop and listen for it.
People new to edibles often expect the same kind of response, which can lead them to make a classic mistake.
“People take edibles, then 45 minutes later they don’t feel anything, and so they decide that they didn’t have enough and they’re going to have more. Then, 15 minutes later, the first one starts to kick in, and they’ve essentially just double-dosed,” Lee says.
“One of the reasons you can drink alcohol and almost immediately start to feel the effects is that alcohol is absorbed through the stomach lining, and (edible) cannabis isn’t. It needs to go through the gastrointestinal tract and down through the lower GI into the intestine before it’s absorbed. It goes through the first pass of the metabolism through the liver, and that also takes time. It’s a very different paradigm from alcohol.”
Expecting cannabis to have one kind of effect
Many experienced users say that terpenes, the chemicals that give different strains a different taste and smell, also give strains different psychoactive effects — sometimes all at the same time.
This is often called the “entourage effect.” Some in the cannabis community think it’s real, others don’t. Science, so far, is silent.
“Different types of cannabis feel differently as a result of these complex mixtures of different chemicals, flavour chemicals, but that hasn’t been shown in a double-blind study,” Lee says.
“I’m convinced that they do, but that’s not good enough for many people in the scientific community.”
Expecting levels of THC to match levels of intoxication
For many years, blood alcohol levels have been the key to measuring whether someone has drunk too much to drive. The courts have supported it because the science supports it.
If THC could be measured in a similar way, and if the measurements meant something similar, cannabis-impaired driving would be a simpler problem to address. (Fortunately, there’s no evidence that legalization has caused it to increase.)
The problem is that it can’t very easily at the roadside, and they don’t.
It means that while finding the presence of THC is pretty easy, finding out what it means is a lot harder. Investigators can measure levels of THC in a driver’s body during an autopsy, but it’s close to impossible to figure out whether it was impairing.
“We have this huge body of evidence to suggest that three beers, over x amount of time, in a person of a given weight, equals this effect,” Lee says. “I don’t think that we’ve done these preliminary studies of cannabis very well.”
In turn, that means that Canadian courts are likely to spend a lot of time and energy over the next few years figuring out whether or not to uphold laws on cannabis-impaired driving.