This article originally appeared on VICE India.
We all have that one friend who shows up to the movies after chomping down a batch of marijuana brownies. You, and everyone else at the theatre, remembers them distinctly, mostly because they’re the ones who kept screaming at the screen, convinced the bullets from the live action sequence were headed straight for them.
Cannabis has been consumed orally for centuries, even as far back as 1000 BC (the OG one, not ‘before corona’). But a bizarre case that cropped up in India has sparked a confusing conversation on whether eating cannabis can land you straight in the hospital.
A family of six in the Miyaganj village of the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh ended up in the hospital on June 27. Reports say the family fell sick after cooking cannabis leaves they mistakenly assumed to be methi (fenugreek), an ingredient often used in Indian cuisines.
According to local news sources, a vegetable seller named Naval Kishore sold weed to a family member named Nitesh claiming it was fenugreek as a prank. Nitesh then brought the packet home, where it was cooked along with potatoes to make an Indian dish known as aloo-methi.
While reports don’t mention how long it took for the high to kick in, the family apparently began to experience dizziness, and asked their neighbour to call a doctor. Some of them even allegedly lost consciousness. The hospital is yet to give an update on their recovery, but the police caught Kishore, who admitted to the prank.
But the incident has left people wondering: Can cooking or eating cannabis really make you lose consciousness? Can bhang or brownies have the same effects? And how much of this extreme reaction can be attributed to the overpowering masalas (spices) that Indian food generally requires?
“There are three things that matter when it comes to taking drugs: it’s onset time, or the time it takes to start the process, how potent it is, and the duration it lasts for,” Dr Prashant Punia, a Pune-based neurosurgeon, told VICE. Punia points out that the active component in cannabis known as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) takes longer to break down when ingested orally through edibles, and is broken down by the liver to convert to 11-hydroxy THC, a more potent psychoactive molecule.
“The intent and lack of mental preparation are also important factors that led to such a reaction,” he says of the case above. Since the family was eating the cannabis as a meal to suppress their hunger, and not to get high, the amount ingested went beyond their bodies’ limits.
“They probably didn’t eat enough for the THC content to be lethal, but since they had never tried it before, it may have triggered an overwhelming reaction in the brain’s neural pathways. People who accidentally consume cannabis tend to react differently. In this case, the fear of doom and unnatural feeling of the high may have caused their heart rate to go up, leading to paranoia or anxiety.” Punia says they may have lost consciousness in this tense situation so that their brain could avoid going through the overwhelming anxiety and fear the high may have triggered.
“I think this was a case of over-consuming cannabis,” agrees Viki Vaurora, the founder of the Great Legalisation Movement, a Bengaluru-based collective working to raise awareness about the medical and therapeutic potential of cannabis. Having worked with thousands of patients using cannabis extract oil to relieve their pain and symptoms, Vaurora says that he has previously observed cases of patients freaking out after ingesting more than the prescribed dose.
“While we don’t know all the details about the patients’ illness and recovery, from the reports we can assume that they were given really strong cannabis flowers of the indica strain of the cannabis plant, which is meant to make you feel relaxed,” he says, adding that if it was the cannabis plant’s sativa strain, their heart rate would’ve increased, and they would’ve felt energetic and anxious, instead of passing out.
Vaurora also adds that this reaction probably wasn’t prompted by the weed being adulterated with rat poison or shoe polish, as it often is in India, since that would lead to nausea and vomiting, and not a loss of consciousness.
So does this mean cooking cannabis has the potential to push you over the edge? Not exactly.
Research suggests that cannabis should be cooked in a fat soluble substance like butter or oil, because it is not a water-soluble substance. It should ideally also always be decarboxylated, which is the process of activating the psychoactive THC by heating the cannabis leaves or flowers before infusing them.
While most people make edibles for the trip they tend to induce, the cannabis plant is also considered highly nutritious.
“The most nutrient-dense part of the cannabis is its seeds containing calcium, fiber, fatty acids and 16gm of protein in 50 grams of serving,” says Mamta Dagar, a nutritionist from Delhi. According to Dagar, cannabis is not only beneficial in completing the protein needs of our body, but also helps in anti-ageing as it contains anti-oxidants like polyphenols, phosphorous and magnesium.
The biggest problem with scarfing down edibles, though, is that it’s difficult to determine the THC content and use an appropriate dosage if you’re going for, say, homemade hash brownies.
Concentrations of THC vary widely depending on different factors, such as where the product was grown and its quality. The effects of edibles can last for many hours, based on how much was ingested, as well as other factors like body weight, metabolism, and gender.
So, overeating any cannabis product can result in symptoms like paranoid delusions, extreme sedation, hallucinations, and confusion. But thankfully, an edibles overdose rarely ever leads to more tragic consequences, with symptoms usually resolving themselves without lasting damage.
But when the stakes do get high, some cannabis connoisseurs recommend eating pistachios, which contain a chemical called alpha-pinene that boosts mental stability, or citrus fruits like lemons or oranges which contain a terpene called limonene with the ability to reduce anxiety while high as a kite. Or you can retreat to a safe space, have a friend hold your hand, and just wait it out.
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