Weed used to be “unspeakable scourge” that made people demand that pianos be played faster. A drug that '90s-era presidential contenders would only admit to smoking with the caveat, “I didn’t inhale it, and never tried it again.”
But things have come a long way. Only 25 percent of Americans thought weed should be legalized in 1992; according to a recent Gallup poll, 64 percent think it should be legal today. And sales are up—there were an estimated $9.7 billion in the US alone in 2017, according to cannabis investment firm The ArcView Group. This was a 33 percent increase from 2016 alone.
It’s the drug of choice for Olympians like Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt as well as so-called “Marijuana Moms” who give interviews to the TODAY show and say things like “Mommy needs a joint just as much as mommy needs a glass of wine.” Sounds harmless enough.
If you’re thinking about trying weed for the first time—or even for the first time since you graduated from college and got married and had a kid and you wouldn’t even know where to find marijuana anymore, ohmygodyou’resoold—relax. Here’s everything you need to know about staying safe and healthy when you dip your toe into the legal (and semi-legal, or not-at-all-legal) world of marijuana circa 2018.
I live in a state where I can buy weed legally. Where do I start?
The Cannabist, a digital publication that tracks the cannabis industry, has a nice map with dispensaries in your area. But don’t just pick the nearest one to you and go with that. Dispensaries aren’t homogeneous box stores like Target: They’re small businesses, and as such have different personalities, and different strengths and weaknesses. Steve Elliott, the author of The Little Black Book of Marijuana and the blog Toke Signals, suggests reading online reviews found at sites like Leafly and Weed Finder. “Shops with consistently good reviews are almost always a better bet than those without,” he says. If you wouldn’t try a new pizza place without checking Yelp, you should take the same precautions with your weed seller.
What if I live in a state where, you know… it’s, um….
I’m asking for a friend!
It's more difficult—and possibly dangerous. Again, marijuana laws vary from state to state, especially when it comes to consequences for buying and possessing it illegally. In some states, like South Dakota and Indiana, being caught with even a single joint can lead to a year in prison and thousands in fines.
In Louisiana, having one measly marijuana plant could put you behind bars for 30 years. Know your risks before you venture into those shark-filled waters. The Marijuana Policy Project has a policy map that outlines exactly what’s at stake where you live, and includes some harrowing details on the absurd fine-print of some state laws. In South Dakota, possession of a small amount of weed will get you a year in jail and a $2,000 fine, and that includes if you test positive for past use. If you took a trip to Colorado and smoked weed while you were there, and then back in South Dakota you tested positive during a drug test, you’re guilty of possession. The answer to the question “are you holding?” is apparently, “Yes, in my intestines!”
What's a good amount of weed for a beginner? And how much should I buy?
The price varies from state to state, but where marijuana is legal, grams average between 8 and 20 dollars. “Over $20 and they know you're a rookie,” says Jake Browne, a cannabis critic for the Denver Post. “For the uninitiated, you’ll be able to tell after a gram if you like cannabis, so don’t worry about saving up for a huge investment.” If you're buying from a legal pot store, Elliott suggests starting with some ready-rolled joints. “Another good option is an eighth-ounce, or 3.5 grams, which is enough to get high on once a day for about a week for a novice,” he says.
What's the difference between sativas and indicas?
Sativa strains are “more energetic and appropriate for daytime use,” Elliott says. “They’re known for a soaring, cerebral high with energetic qualities. Indica strains are more soporific and sleepy, and are best used in the evening. They are known for a heavy body high and pain/anxiety relief.” (Dan Michaels, author of Green: A Field Guide to Marijuana and founder of cannabis research group Sinsemedia, suggests using a mnemonic trick to remember the distinctions between the two strains: “Indica means ‘in da couch’.”)
But not everyone agrees. “The indica/sativa classification is mostly bullshit,” Browne says. “It describes how plants grow, but that didn't stop dispensaries from making it the default way to explain a complex-as-hell plant.” The same goes for a delineations like “kush,” a collective name for a group of strains from the Afghanistan region. But Browne claims it’s a very American thing to be overly impressed with the “kush” label. “In the UK, everyone talks about Skunk,” he says. “There's nothing particularly great about a strain just because it has kush in the name. Everything depends on that grower and the genetics.”
Think of it this way: If you're buying your very first comic book, you probably don’t need to be concerned with where it lands on the CGC grading scale. Whether a comic is in “Very Fine” or “Near Mint” condition doesn’t mean a damn bit of difference, at least not for you right now. It’s your first comic book. Just find something that looks cool and stop stressing about what the hardcore collectors are doing.
What should I expect during my first experience?
Especially during your first few attempts, taking it slow is the best strategy. “No bong hits or smoking an entire blunt,” Michaels says. He suggests starting with a shared joint or vape pen, and then taking just a puff or two without holding it in. “Only take more puffs if you don’t feel anything after fifteen to twenty minutes,” Michaels says. “Just like anything, the more you try it, the more you’ll start feeling comfortable with what your body needs.”
Your mileage may vary. You might feel sleepy, or euphoric, or anxious, or hungry, or all of the above. “Understand that no matter what you feel, a different strain of cannabis can have a completely different effect,” Browne says. “So be patient and switch it up if you didn’t have the desired outcome.”
Marijuana is a drug that rewards patience. If you keep trying and experimenting, taking baby steps every time, “sooner or later your perceptions will feel altered,” Elliott says. “Music will sound better and more meaningful; foods will taste deliciously intense; TV and movies with be mesmerizing; and shared activities like conversation and sex—especially sex— can be mind blowingly good with the right partner.”
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What’s the difference between smoking or vaping and an edible? Do they affect your body differently?
A lot comes down to personal preference. Some people like the ritual of smoking, and there are a whole array of ways to get that smoke into your body, from hand and water pipes to rolling papers, hookahs, and even homemade devices. (Those of us who came of weed-smoking age in the last century believe you can’t really call yourself a pot smoker till you've fashioned a makeshift pipe from an empty Coke can, or any number of other objects.) As for edibles, there are gummies, mints, lozenges, chewing gums, brownies, cookies, pill capsules, infused drinks, oral sprays, suckers, and tinctures. There’s a third mode of entry, involving cannabis suppositories and your butthole, but let’s stick with the northern orifice.
The effects are (mostly) the same, but the biggest difference is control. “Smoking has almost instantaneous effects,” Elliott says, “and thus allows the user to titrate his or her dosage, controlling the intensity of the high.” You take a puff, see how you feel, and if it’s not too intense, take another puff. But with an edible, the onset is much slower. It needs to be digested and processed by your liver before you feel anything, and that can take anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes, Elliott says. It also comes with a deeper, longer body high. “You might feel high four to six hours instead of just a couple hours as with smoking or vaping,” he says.
What if I forget which are the cannabis gummies and which are the ones I can give to my kids?
You’re right to be cautious. While hopefully you don’t just throw things into your mouth without first considering what it might be, the same can’t always be said for your friends and family. Kids have gotten stoned on candy they thought was harmless, most recently in Albuquerque, New Mexico, when a 9-year-old girl shared her grandfather’s medical marijuana gummies with some friends at elementary school. The kids only got a little “giggly,” but it could have been much, much worse. If you opt for gummies, keep them hidden. Just like you wouldn’t leave a vibrator on your coffee table so your grandma picks it up and asks, “Is this one of those fancy back massagers?” you should keep the marijuana candy far away and out of sight.
Should I just not try edibles? It sounds like they’re more trouble than they’re worth.
Edibles are a great choice if you’re using cannabis for pain control, as the effects are more intense and last longer. But for recreational users, edibles are fine as long as you do your homework and practice discretion. Take much, much less than you think seems like the right dose for you—between 5 and 10 milligrams of THC is more than enough for a beginner, according to the Oregon Responsible Edibles Council—and if it doesn’t put you in the happy place you were expecting, “move up from there on a different day,” Browne says. “Most pot freakouts are from people who didn’t wait, ate too much, and then spent the night in the fetal position.”
What’s vaping exactly? Is it better than smoking it?
Vaping is basically heating marijuana without burning it, so you ingest a mist rather than smoke. Imagine a bong, but without needing a lighter, and it didn't make you cough like an emphysema patient after using it, and your clothes don’t stink of weed. Mitch Earleywine, the author of Understanding Marijuana: A New Look at the Scientific Evidence and a psychology professor at the State University of New York at Albany, claims that vaping is “definitely better than smoking. Data from my lab show that switching to the vaporizer lowers symptoms of bronchitis and increases lung volume.” Also, people just like it more; in a 2014 study, most pot smokers said vaping didn’t just feel healthier but also gave them a more pleasurable high. In short, vape pens are like an e-cigarette but for weed, and they're relatively idiot-proof. Here are some of the best-rated options out there right now.
If I buy it in a state where it’s legal, I can smoke it just about anywhere, right?
Sorry, no. All states are pretty strict when it comes to consuming in public. You can’t light up at a concert, a farmer’s market, or your kid’s school play.
When I was in California, I saw people vaping outside all the time.
Well, those people are breaking the law, and the fine (if they get caught) is between $100 and $250. Think of it like booze: You’re not going to crack open a beer in the park or while waiting for the bus—or if you do, you’re (hopefully) smart enough to be sneaky about it.
Is it possible to get addicted to weed?
It's possible but rare, Earleywine says. “Dependence symptoms like tolerance or trouble fulfilling society's idea of adult obligations seem to show up in 4 to 9 percent of regular users,” he says.
Well what about lung cancer? Heart attacks?
A 2013 UCLA study found no connection between marijuana use and lung cancer, and pulmonologist Donald Tashkin, the study’s main author and a longtime marijuana researcher, claimed there was “even a suggestion of some protective effect.” As for heart problems, a 2017 study showed that weed enthusiasts may face a higher risk of dying from hypertension. But the study has its shortcomings, especially its assumption that anyone who has tried marijuana even once qualifies as a “user.”
As Earleywine points out, “Sooner or later we’ll have some baby boomer have a heart attack with THC-metabolites in his system. I say ‘his’ because men are more likely to smoke cannabis and more likely to have a heart attack. Given how prevalent cannabis use and heart attacks remain, we’d expect this to happen a few times a year, by chance. [But] if you’ve got some kind of cardiac problem and can’t have your heart rate go above 90, the plant is not for you.”
What if I start freaking out because I think I’m having an overdose? Should I go to the ER?
According to every marijuana expert we spoke with, there’s no such thing as being so high you need a doctor. “A visit to the emergency room is a waste of your money and their time,” Elliott says. If you go anyway, because you really need somebody in a white jacket to tell you that you’re not going to die, they’ll likely just “give you a sedative and have you sleep it off,” Browne adds.
Earleywine says there's some evidence, based on experiments conducted by his students, that “an antihistamine and some cartoons will get plenty of people through an adverse reaction.” Prevention, he adds, may be worth a pound of cure. “If folks start low and give the plant plenty of time to take effect, bad experiences will be extremely unlikely,” he says. “But if your heart is beating out of your chest and you're at risk for a cardiac problem, go ahead and get someone to drive you to the ER.”
Here’s the bottom line: Marijuana is not going to kill you. It is technically impossible. “A smoker would theoretically have to consume nearly 1,500 pounds of marijuana within about 15 minutes to induce a lethal response,” according to a 1988 ruling from the Drug Enforcement Agency. If you’re thinking about consuming that much weed in just a quarter of an hour, you have Keith Richards blood and the last thing you should be worrying about is dying. If you’re like the rest of us, however, there’s no amount of weed you can put in your body in one sitting that could do any real damage.
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