Legal marijuana (Cannabis sativa) is one of the fastest-growing industries in the U.S., which means that more and more of us are now in a position to get our hands on pot. Now that we’ve got it, however, not everybody knows what to do with it. Do we smoke it or eat it? And does it make a difference?
As it turns out, it does. When it comes to a marijuana high, smoking a joint and munching a brownie are two whole different biological ballgames.
First, a caution: “legal,” here, is still a limited term. Medical marijuana, right now, is legal (or at least decriminalized) in 23 states. Recreational weed, on the other hand, is legal in just four—Colorado, Washington, Alaska, and Oregon, plus the District of Columbia—though at least six more (including my home state of Vermont) have marijuana legalization in their legislative pipelines. According to a 2015 Gallup poll, 58 percent of Americans favor legalizing pot, a number that has been steadily on the rise since the 1990s.
This doesn’t mean that weed-lovers are out of the woods yet. At a federal level, marijuana is still illegal—don’t smoke it or munch on it in a national park—and in a good number of hold-out states, possession of so much as a smidgen can land you in jail.
Still, people have been using marijuana for thousands of years. The plant originated in Central Asia, where two subspecies were popularly known: the psychoactive Cannabis sativa and the non-psychoactive C. sativa L., commonly known as hemp, from which the ancient Chinese made cloth and shoes.
From Asia, marijuana travelled across the globe, finally arriving in the U.S. In the 19th century. It was first known mostly to druggists, who included it in a range of patent medicines, variously—and probably accurately—advertised as cures for nervousness and melancholy.
The practice of smoking it seems to have been introduced to the U.S. in the early 20th century by Mexican immigrants. When American legislators finally noticed this, they outlawed it.
Marijuana’s return to mainstream acceptance has been a long time coming, but it now looks like the handwriting is on the wall. And these days, cooks are primed to give it a whirl.
Perhaps the most famous of modern marijuana-based munchies dates to 1954, when it appeared in the Alice B. Toklas Cook Book as Hashish Fudge. The recipe called for peppercorns, nutmeg, cinnamon, coriander, dates, dried figs, almonds, peanuts, sugar, and butter —and an unspecified “bunch” of Cannibus sativa, pulverized. The whole, recommended Alice, should be made into balls about the size of a walnut and “eaten with care.”
And there lies the problem. It’s difficult to know, with marijuana edibles, just how much of the plant’s main psychoactive ingredient (THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol) is getting into your system. A marijuana overdose won’t kill you, but it can be unexpectedly awful. Inexperienced users who inadvertently scarf down way too many marijuana muffins, warns a recent article in The Economist, may find themselves in the grip of paranoia, wedging chairs under doorknobs to fend off attacks of spiders from Mars. Witness New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd’s over-the-top encounter with a pot-laced caramel-chocolate bar.
Some analysts compare marijuana smoked versus marijuana eaten to mugs of beer versus shots of whiskey. In the first case, users get high rapidly and so are better able to self-regulate intake; in the second, it takes a while for the effect to kick in, which means that without realizing it, users can land themselves with much too much of a good thing.
When marijuana is smoked, THC is absorbed by the lungs and reaches the brain quickly. The effects generally are felt within the first ten minutes, and dissipate over the next hour. Marijuana, eaten, on the other hand, is processed by the liver, where THC is converted to 11-hydroxy-THC, a metabolite that is particularly good at crossing the blood-brain barrier. The effect of marijuana-laced edibles can take up to three hours to appear, but when it does, it’s more intense and long-lasting. That’s why this route is often recommended for those on medical marijuana regimens.
Regulating the THC content of marijuana edibles, which can include everything from marijuana-infused butter and cooking oil to cookies, granola, guacamole, fruit smoothies, and gummy bears, is a tricky business, since it’s difficult to control amounts of drug from food to food and batch to batch. Colorado, a precedent-setter when it comes to pot-based foods, has set a limit of 10 mg of THC per serving—enough to get the “average person” high —with a cap of 100 mg total per food product.
Another problem for the marijuana edibles crowd is that while pot, in proper quantities, may make us feel marvelous, it just doesn’t taste very good. To date, a lot of pot cookery is aimed at creative disguise. Chefs and cookbook authors are rising to the challenge: the recent Herb: Mastering the Art of Cooking with Cannabis by Melissa Parks and Laurie Wolf, for example, is crammed with pot-laden recipes for appetizers, dips, pizzas, sandwiches, breads, entrees, and desserts; while Sweet Mary Jane by Karin Lazarus (“the Martha Stewart of weed baking”) is a collection of lush and gorgeous psychoactive desserts. (For more on the growing edibles market, see U.S. Marijuana Edibles, One Year In: State of Infusion.)
It looks like we’ll be seeing a lot more of this in the future.
In the meantime, for those new to the world of edible marijuana, the best advice still comes from Alice B. Toklas. Eat with care.