Cannabis Edibles: Not the same cannabis high you are looking for

On October 17, 2019, regulations legalizing cannabis edibles, drinkables and external consumables (i.e., topicals), came into effect in Canada. Certain legal edibles are expected to hit shelves in early 2020, although most of the classic products we think of when we think of cannabis edibles (e.g., chocolates, gummies and drinks infused with cannabis) will not likely appear on legal shelves for a few months.

Unlike alcohol, which is made up of a single organic molecule, the chemical structure of cannabis is highly complex. The compounds we typically think of, CBD and THC, are only 2 of 483 other identified compounds contained in the cannabis plant. The result: knowledge is lagging behind and we know very little about what these other compounds do and what effects they may have on the body. For instance, many people may not realize that THC consumed in cannabis edibles, which is ingested through the gut, is converted by the liver into a chemical compound called 11-hydroxy THC. This is a different chemical, which is why consuming cannabis edibles feels so very different: it takes longer for cannabis edibles to produce a high (45 minutes to 2 hours to take effect), and they produce a stronger and more prolonged high that can last anywhere from 3 to 6 hours.

With the recent introduction of cannabis edibles, cannabis compounds called “terpenes” are starting to receive more attention. Terpenes are chemicals that affect the smell of different strains of cannabis, but they are also believed to have different psychoactive effects. One type of terpene, for instance, is believed to be “uplifting” while another “relaxing”. Processing also affects the doses of terpenes that ultimately end up in a product. The process used to extract the THC for edibles destroys the terpenes, as do high temperatures. Conversely, vaping at lower temperatures preserves more of the THC and terpenes, delivering different psychoactive effects. The issue is that, aside from anecdotal evidence, there is little science to show what effects, if any, all of these compounds have on different people in their varying concentrations, methods of consumption and in different circumstances (i.e., mixed with alcohol).

Manufacturers have also expressed concerns about the restrictiveness of current labelling regulations, which they say are preventing them from describing their products in a way that will help educate their customers to make informed choices about the type of cannabis product they should buy and consume. In particular, currently, descriptions on cannabis products cannot contain any words telling customers how the product might make them feel. Sellers therefore cannot legally tell customers what the effects of different terpenes are likely to be.

Bottom line, cannabis edibles produce a different type of “high”. The problem: since education and knowledge is lagging, many users fail to appreciate this. Nova Scotia, followed by New Brunswick, Alberta and BC have been the top consumers of cannabis in Canada in the past 3 months. A recent poll of Albertans reported by Global News revealed that 21% of Albertans are unsure how cannabis edibles affect driving. Twenty-six percent did not know how the risks compare to smoking or vaping cannabis. Twenty-four per cent of those surveyed said they did not think edibles are riskier than smoked or vaped cannabis, while 45 percent assumed edibles pose the same risk as smoked or vaped cannabis. Five per cent of Albertans surveyed said they think edibles are safer than consuming cannabis in the other forms.

To protect the public from the potential detrimental effects of cannabis use, car accidents being one, we need more education to help people understand and recognize that a “high” is a “high”, which is not conducive to certain activities, such as driving, whether it is a high that results from the consumption of edible cannabis or a high attained by smoking or vaping the product