Guide to Edible Cannabis
Edible cannabis products, commonly referred to as edibles, are food or beverage items that have been infused with cannabis. Cannabis is safe to consume orally, but will not provide any effects in its natural state. It must be manipulated before it can be consumed in edible form.
This article will focus on the consumption of edible THC cannabis products, which cause psychoactive effects. CBD edibles do not cause psychoactive effects and are much simpler to make. Just like with THC oil or tincture, all you need to do is add a few drops of CBD oil to your food or drink (4).
The History of Edibles
Eating cannabis goes all the way back to ancient times. Chinese emperors brewed cannabis tea, Hindus drank warm spiced milk with “gunjah”, and Nomadic tribes in Morocco ate hash jam (1). Cannabis plants seem to have been discovered in India where they were cultivated for medicinal purposes in as early as 900 BC. Hindus offered cannabis to deities during religious ceremonies, and the plant continues to have religious associations in India (5). In the late 1800s, a group of intellectuals in Paris formed a “Club of the Hashish-Eaters”, where they crumbled hashish into their coffee and stayed up late discussing philosophy (1).
The most famous edible in history is the “pot brownie”, which first appeared in 1954. A cookbook was written by Alice B. Toklas, life partner of famous poet and art collector Gertrude Stein. In this cookbook was a recipe called Haschich Fudge, which did not actually contain chocolate, just nuts, dates, figs, and cannabis. The recipe was a gift from painter Brion Gysin, who also included notes on sourcing cannabis as well as when to pick and dry it (1).
In 1978, writer and former sailor J.F. Burke wrote about eating cannabis in an article entitled ‘Eat It!”. Unfortunately Burke was not aware of decarboxylation, which is required to activate the effects of cannabis, and instructed readers to simply crumble up the plant and add it to food. He also did not know that infusing the herb into fat greatly increases its potency and effects. Burke did however offer good advice to new users, and assured them that it is impossible to overdose. Burke wrote, “What if you eat too much? You’ll be drunk. You may barf. You might trip. But you won’t die. The ratio of effective-to-lethal dose of THC is 1 to 40,000… the lethal dose of THC would be 4,000,000 milligrams, an unwieldy mass to get into one’s stomach, much less keep there” (1).
Arguably the most famous person in the history of edibles is “Mary Jane” or “Brownie Mary” as many called her. Mary Jane Rathbun was a middle aged iHOP waitress in San Francisco when she became famous for selling pot brownies (2). Mary ran an illegal kitchen out of her house in the 1980s and 90s to provide cannabis brownies to her friends who were AIDS patients. She became very politically involved in the fight for legalization, and was arrested a few times, completing her required community service by spending time with her friends with AIDS (1). Despite the arrests, Brownie Mary continued baking, motivated by the fact that the pot brownies helped decrease nausea and low appetites suffered by AIDS and cancer patients, whom she referred to as her “kids” (2). Brownie Mary became a leader of the medical cannabis movement, helping pave the way for new laws. In 1991, Mary successfully campaigned to help pass Prop P in San Francisco, which asked California to restore cannabis to a list of available medications. She opened the first medical dispensary with a friend and sold the brownies to anyone who was sick. She also helped fight for Prop 215, the Compassionate Use Act, which passed in 1996 (1). This law gave critical patients in California, including those with cancer, AIDS, arthritis, and chronic pain, the right to obtain and use cannabis medically if recommended by a physician (2).
THC edibles can either be purchased pre-made, or made from scratch at home. If cooking with cannabis at home, make sure to follow the required steps to ensure the edibles have the desired effects, potency, and taste.
Cannabinoids like THC are compounds produced by the cannabis plant (9). When cannabinoids are still in raw cannabis flowers, they contain an extra carboxyl ring or group attached to their chain (7). In this raw or “acid” form as they are called pre decarboxylation, the cannabinoids are THCA, or THC acid (9). So when cannabis flower is purchased, it contains THCA, which has some medicinal properties but no psychoactive effects. It must be converted into its neutral form, THC, for those types of effects to be felt (7).
Decarboxylation is the process of heating raw cannabis so that the chemical structure of the raw cannabinoids change to a neutral form. The raw cannabinoids contain an extra -COOH bond, or carboxyl group, which is a carbon-oxygen-oxygen-hydrogen molecular cluster and needs to be removed (9). If cannabis is not decarboxylated, the psychoactive effects will not be felt (3). Heat and time are the two factors needed to decarboxylate cannabis. When cannabis is smoked, the heat instantly provides decarboxylation, making inhaling the fastest acting consumption method. Drying and curing cannabis alone will achieve a small amount of decarboxylation over time, but the process takes a long time. If making edibles, one should apply a low amount of heat to the cannabis over a long period of time to successfully prepare the cannabis for consumption.
THCA begins to decarboxylate at 220 degrees Fahrenheit and after 30-45 minutes (7). Some edible recipes suggest setting the oven at 230 degrees Fahrenheit (9). Some even bake it at a higher temperature, such as 250, but the temperature should ever exceed 300. Higher temperatures will not only risk the integrity of the cannabinoids, but will also affect the terpenes, potentially eliminating pleasing flavors and leaving a bad taste (7). Around 80% of acid cannabinoids convert to their neutral form during the decarboxylation process (9).
Another important step of decarboxylation is to break or grind the cannabis into smaller pieces. Doing this and laying the cannabis in a flat layer will allow for even heat distribution (9). The cannabis should be ground coarsely, not too fine. If the cannabis is too fine it will introduce chlorophyll to the oil, leaving a grassy, plant-like taste. Cannabinoids readily bind to the fats in oil, so a coarse grind will allow it to absorb without pulling in unwanted plant material (3). In general, a downside of decarboxylating is that some of the more volatile terpenes that give the cannabis its signature aroma and flavor are lost during the process (17).
Once the cannabis cools, the next step is to infuse it with fats (9).
Infusing with Fats
All chemicals that are consumed, whether vitamins or medications, are either water-soluble or fat-soluble. Cannabinoids like THC are fat-soluble, meaning they need to infuse with fat to become available to the body (10).
Most recipes recommend infusing the decarboxylated cannabis into butter or oil.
The recommended ratio of cannabis to fat is one to one, for example one cup of oil and one cup of ground cannabis. Lipids in the oil can only bind with so many cannabinoids, so attempting to increase the cannabis to oil ratio will not work (3).
The processes of decarboxylation and fat infusion can actually be combined. Pre-decarboxylated cannabis can be placed in a slow cooker or sauce pan with whatever oil is being used for infusion. Just like with regular decarboxylation the heat needs to be low, below 300 degrees. This combined process takes around three to six hours (18).
Once infused, the cannabis will need to be strained out of the infused butter or oil. A cheesecloth is recommended, but it is important to not squeeze the cloth, and instead let gravity do the straining. Squeezing it will push some of the plant material through, which defeats the purpose of straining (3).
Potency and Dosage
If making homemade treats, it can be hard to get the edible dosage accurate. It is recommended that consumers test the potency of the cannabis infused oil before cooking with it. To do this, measure out a specific amount of the oil, such as ½ teaspoon, and add it to a snack or drink. After an hour or two, the THC effects should be felt, and it can be decided whether this is the appropriate amount for a single dose. If so, multiply that amount to determine how much is needed for the whole batch (3).
No matter what is being cooked, it is important to stir very thoroughly when cooking. If not, the potency will differ between different parts of what is being cooked. For example, one brownie may cause much more intense psychoactive effects than another if the brownie batter was not stirred well enough. Stir for a long time to ensure that the determined single dose makes it into each individual segment (3).
Overall, dosage will depend on the consumer’s height, weight, metabolism and what they ate that day. There are guidelines of general ranges one can follow to estimate their dose, which are as follows. First time users or users with low tolerance: 1-2.5 mg; Users who smoke a few times a week: 2.5-15mg; Users who have a tolerance: 15-30mg; Users who have a very high tolerance: 30-50mg; Experienced users only, and those who have extreme medical conditions: 50-100mg (15, 16).
Benefits and Downsides to Edibles
There are many benefits to edibles as a cannabis consumption method.
One of the main benefits of edibles is that they come with none of the health risks associated with smoking. Edible cannabis does not affect your lungs in any way, as opposed to smoking cannabis which can potentially damage the lungs (6, 13, 14).
Another benefit is that THC edibles can be very tasty. If made correctly, a brownie or cookie edible should taste similar to its non cannabis counterpart, providing a delicious way to consume cannabis. This is also beneficial if you do not like the taste or feeling of smoking.
Edibles are also beneficial because they are easy to take and consume on the go. When purchased at a dispensary, edibles come sealed in packaging and can easily be stored in your bag. The shelf life and storage location will differ depending on the type of edible, but baked goods will only last as long as normal baked goods last, a matter of days to weeks. The best option is to store baked goods in the freezer, where they last for two to three months (8).
Another major benefit is that the cannabis effects last longer when consumed in edible form. The THC is slowly released into the body’s system as the edible is digested, lasting two to four hours longer than other methods. This may also be considered a downside to edibles. Although the effects last longer, they also take longer to be felt, since it takes time to digest. It can take 90 minutes to two hours to begin feeling the effects of the edible (14).
As mentioned, one potential issue with homemade edibles is that they can be hard to dose accurately (11). Not only might the doses from the same batch differ, but the delayed onset of the psychoactive effects may cause other dosing problems. Consumers are often unaware of how long it takes to feel the effects and may consume more edibles, only to be hit with intense or adverse effects once they kick in. Overall, few research studies have examined how cannabis ingestion differs from inhalation in terms of safety, effects, and therapeutic use (12). It is also very important to label homemade edibles before storage, so as not to mix them up with regular cookies or brownies, especially if there are children in the household.
If purchasing pre-made edibles at a dispensary, there are a few things that should be looked at on the label. The first is how much THC is in the edible, and if it contains CBD as well, what the ratio is. This will tell you how much of a dose to consume, because some edibles are meant to be split up, not eaten all at once. The label should also tell you the serving size.
Another factor to consider is the ingredients. Check to make sure that the ingredients are natural and what you would expect to find in an edible. The final thing to check is when the edible was packaged, and when it expires. Eating an expired edible could have negative effects, just like when eating regular expired baked goods. The potency will remain the same, but eating any expired foods can be a health hazard.
- McDonough, E. (2016, September 20). The history of pot brownies. High Times. Retrieved from https://hightimes.com/edibles/everything-you-need-to-know-about-the-history-of-pot-brownies/
- Alexander, E. (2019, April 17). How one woman’s ‘magically delicious’ pot brownies changed history. Food 52. Retrieved from https://food52.com/blog/24041-brownie-mary-jane-rathbun-history-medical-marijuana
- Rahn, B. (2017, September 28). Avoid these 7 common mistakes while cooking cannabis edibles. Leafly. Retrieved from https://www.leafly.com/news/cannabis-101/tips-for-cooking-better-cannabis-oil-cannabutter
- Nunley, K. (2020, March 27). Marijuana edibles guide. Medical Marijuana, Inc. Retrieved from https://www.medicalmarijuanainc.com/marijuana-edibles/
- Kuddus, M., Ginawi, I., & Al-Hazimi, A. (2013, June 24). Cannabis sativa: An ancient wild edible plant of India. Emirates Journal of Food and Agriculture, 25(10), 736-745. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.9755/ejfa.v25i10.16400
- Ribeiro, L., Ind, P. (2016). Effect of cannabis smoking on lung function and respiratory symptoms: a structured literature review. npj Primary Care Respiratory Medicine 26, 16071. https://doi.org/10.1038/npjpcrm.2016.71
- Bennett, P. (2016, April 30). What is decarboxylation, and why does your cannabis need it? Leafly. Retrieved from https://www.leafly.com/news/cannabis-101/what-is-decarboxylation
- Tully, C. F. (2019, October 18). How to store your edibles for optimal safety and freshness. Leafly. Retrieved from https://www.leafly.com/news/lifestyle/store-edibles-safety-freshness
- Sigman, Z. (2020, February 27). Decarboxylating cannabis. Project CBD. Retrieved from https://www.projectcbd.org/guidance/decarboxylating-cannabis
- McDonough, E. (2016, June 1). Which fat absorbs THC best? High Times. Retrieved from https://hightimes.com/edibles/which-fat-absorbs-thc-best/
- Vandrey R., Raber J.C., Raber M.E., Douglass B., Miller C., Bonn-Miller M.O. Cannabinoid Dose and Label Accuracy in Edible Medical Cannabis Products. JAMA. 2015;313(24):2491–2493. DOI: 10.1001/jama.2015.6613
- Barrus, D. G., Capogrossi, K. L., Cates, S. C., Gourdet, C. K., Peiper, N. C., Novak, S. P., Lefever, T. W., & Wiley, J. L. (2016). Tasty THC: Promises and Challenges of Cannabis Edibles. Methods report (RTI Press), 10.3768/rtipress.2016.op.0035.1611. https://doi.org/10.3768/rtipress.2016.op.0035.1611.
- Callaghan, R.C., Allebeck, P. & Sidorchuk, A. Marijuana use and risk of lung cancer: a 40-year cohort study. Cancer Causes Control 24, 1811–1820 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10552-013-0259-0
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