Reefer Madness: Preventing & Combating THC "Overdose"
When it Comes to THC, “More” is Not Always “Better”
There is hardly a cannabis story more ubiquitous than that of the too-intense pot brownie experience - it’s extremely common for cannabis enthusiasts, both new and seasoned, to consume a cannabis product, especially an edible without lab testing results or concentrated cannabis products, and experience feelings of dread, anxiety, paranoia, racing heart, and even nausea or dizziness.
If you or someone you know has ever had a cannabis experience like this, then the most likely culprit was a THC dose beyond that individual’s appropriate tolerance level. THC “overdose” is not like an overdose of many other drugs that carry life-threatening implications - while the experience is certainly uncomfortable to go through, there has never been a confirmed death caused by cannabis or THC consumption. This is because THC is not able to bind to and interfere with the cells in the regions of the brain controlling automatic life-sustaining functions, like breathing and heart rate, to the point that they malfunction and result in death. It is true that the heart rate may be elevated due to THC’s ability to open blood vessels and increase blood flow, and breathing may be impacted by this circulatory opening (and the mental state implications of mass quantity THC binding in the brain leading to heavier breathing) but these symptoms will not escalate to the point of death.
While it may be somewhat comforting to know that an accidental overdose of THC will not be a deadly mistake, it doesn’t provide much solace to someone currently experiencing the extreme paranoia and nausea effects of too much cannabis consumption, nor does it make the experience any more desirable to go through.
With that in mind, we’d like to provide some strategies to empower you to control your cannabis experience before you embark on the journey, as well as some tactics to help reduce those negative feelings in the event of an accidental overdose experience.
Preventative Measures to Avoid THC Overconsumption
Benjamin Franklin is credited with saying “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”, and that wisdom is especially applicable in cannabis consumption. Taking some simple precautions to set yourself up for a successful and comfortable experience can be the difference between a great experience you’re eager to repeat, and a terrible experience that may put you off of cannabis altogether. Here are the 5 main factors you should consider before you consume a cannabis product:
Know Your Dose - This is the single most important precaution that you can take to ensure a positive cannabis experience. Take note of your most ideal dose of THC, paying close attention to the consumption method (50mg of inhaled THC has vastly different effects than 50mg of orally consumed THC, and even smoking and vaporizing a similar THC dose can feel quite different) and the matrix of terpenes and minor cannabinoids contained in the product, as these factors can greatly impact the final experience that product provides. If you’re not sure of your ideal dose for a new product type, it is always best to Start Low and Go Slow - start with a THC dose around 5mg and wait an appropriate amount of time for the onset of effects to begin based on the consumption method (usually 1-15 minutes for inhalation, 20-80 minutes for edibles, 5-20 minutes for sublingual absorption - check the packaging of your product to confirm the onset estimation that company provides if you’re unsure). If you feel no effects after an appropriate amount of time, you can begin slowly increasing your dose until you find a comfortable zone of experience for you.
Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate! - this one is important for both a positive cannabis experience and general health overall. Ensure that your body is adequately hydrated before you consume cannabis, as adding any kind of intoxicant or foreign substance to a dehydrated system will almost always result in negative physical and mental effects. You should also have plenty of water available during your cannabis consumption session to maintain your hydration, sooth sore throats if smoking or vaporizing cannabis, and treat one of the most common cannabis side-effects - the dreaded dry mouth :) Proper hydration is also vital to treating an active THC overdose, which we’ll discuss in the next section.
Pay Attention to your Physical and Social Setting - Making sure that you’re in a familiar place, where you feel comfortable physically and mentally, surrounded with people you trust, goes a long way to prevent an uneasy cannabis experience. If a slight overdose begins to occur, the additional stress of being in an unusual place, or with people you don’t trust to help you, can cause a spiral of anxiety that takes an uncomfortable feeling to a terrifying place very quickly. If you do start feeling uneasy and you have close friends there who can talk you through it, get you the supplies you need to feel better, and make sure nothing happens to you physically, then you are much less likely to spiral out in your experience. Being comfortable in your physical setting means you won’t have social pressure from strangers or lack a safe space if you need to lie down or isolate yourself from a social event to ride out the experience. Be sure that you’re paying attention to all of these placement factors so you can plan ahead in the event of an accidental overconsumption.
Plan Your Day Accordingly - Cannabis can be somewhat hard to predict due to its variable chemical matrixes across strains and products - the experience of one strain or product could last much longer and be much stronger than a similar dose of a different type. In the case of edibles especially, the duration of cannabis effects can be very unpredictable, taking effect in 20 minutes or not kicking in for 2 hours, and lasting anywhere from 2 hours to 8 hours or even more based on the dose consumed and timing of subsequent doses. Make sure that you’re checking your schedule and planning your sessions correctly for your commitments - if you have work or family events that you can not be under the influence for, time your cannabis consumption carefully to avoid an experience that lasts longer than expected and puts you in a bad situation that spikes anxiety.
Avoid Alcohol or Poly-Drug Consumption when using Cannabis - Pop culture has somewhat normalized the pursuit of a “cross-fade”, or drinking to intoxication while consuming cannabis, but this can be dangerous for new consumers or those hoping to avoid THC overdose. This is especially true when it comes to the practice of consuming cannabis along with another or multiple other illicit drugs. Cannabis compounds can interact with other psychoactive compounds in drugs and alcohol to create a multiplicative drug effect rather than an additive effect, producing a much stronger intoxication experience - so if getting drunk or taking a recreational drug like ecstasy is a 1x intoxicant, and smoking cannabis is a 1x intoxicant, doing both together is not going to be a 2x experience, but more likely to be 3-5x the experience of smoking or drinking alone, easily putting you into an uncomfortable position much more quickly than consuming cannabis on its own would have. When consuming cannabis, especially as a new consumer or when trying new products, avoid consuming other drugs or alcohol to maintain better control of your experience.
Counteractive Measures to Reduce Overconsumption Symptoms
Unfortunately, sometimes THC overconsumption can occur without warning or completely on accident - a strain or product can be stronger than you expect, delayed onset of effects may lead to double-dosing, and edibles that are not clearly marked as containing THC can be mistaken for normal snacks and eaten by someone who did not intend to get high.
In these cases, even the best preparation can be inadequate to prevent THC overconsumption, so you’ll need to be armed with some strategies you can use if you find yourself in an unexpected THC overdose situation. We’ve discussed this on our podcast Periodic effects in our Budtender Sessions previously, and wanted to expand on it here in the blog. Here are 5 tactics to keep in mind to combat cannabis overconsumption:
Chew or Sniff Ground Black Peppercorns - Science hasn’t yet completely proven this method to be a non-placebo treatment for THC overdose, but anecdotal reports have shown chewing up or sniffing freshly ground black peppercorns to be mostly effective for quickly reducing the anxiety and negative feelings associated with the experience. This effectiveness is likely due to the abundance of beta-Caryophyllene found in black pepper. Beta-Caryophyllene is a terpene found in many plants, including a wide range of cannabis strains, that typically produces calming, sedating effects when consumed or smelled. Beta-Caryophyllene is also the only terpene that we currently know of that can directly interact with the receptors of the Endocannabinoid System and potentially reduce the intoxicating effects of THC at the source. These may be the scientific underpinnings that support the effectiveness of black pepper for counteracting cannabis overconsumption, but more research is needed to confirm this. Even if scientifically unconfirmed, the black pepper trick is definitely worth a try if you find yourself or a friend in the midst of a too-intense cannabis experience, as the only downside to using this safe and widely available home staple in this way is the unsavory taste of chewing straight black pepper, assuming you aren’t allergic. Chewing is thought to be more immediately effective, but you can also sniff the fresh grounds if you can’t stomach the taste. Just be sure that you’re using fresh, whole peppercorns that you break down and not the pre-ground table pepper, as pre-ground spices are aged and dried such that they are much less potent and will likely not contain a sufficient quantity of the terpene to produce an effect. You can also try other calming terpenes, like the Linalool of Lavender or pure Myrcene, to lessen the anxiety you’re feeling.
Use a High CBD Product - it may seem counterintuitive to combat a cannabis compound overdose with another cannabis compound, but CBD is actually able to encourage a physical change in your ECS receptors that causes them to release bound THC, which can lessen the psychoactive effects of the THC consumed and help you feel less high, less anxious, and more in control of your experience. This biological action to effectively reduce the negative effects of THC over-binding to ECS receptors has lead some to call CBD the “EpiPen of Cannabis”. For this reason, having a high CBD product on hand (with little to no THC contained in it) is a good idea any time you’re trying a new product or increasing your dosage of a product you’ve tried before. Simply consume the CBD product, and the negative feelings should drastically reduce within 10-15 minutes depending on the delivery method.
Check In with Your Body to Center Yourself - this tactic comes to us from respected cannabis educator and friend of the Periodic effects Podcast , Emma Chasen of Eminent Consulting. Emma is featured on our Science of Cannabis episode series, where she provides constant goldmines of accessible information around the hard science of cannabis effects. If you find yourself in the grips of a THC overdose, Emma recommends performing the following mental exercise to reduce your anxiety and take control of the situation - consider the real science behind the negative symptoms you’re experiencing, and remind yourself that they are temporary and non-life threatening. Tell yourself that the racing heartbeat you’re feeling is not because your heart’s beating uncontrollably and going to explode, it’s just because THC is increasing your blood flow, and it’s not dangerous. The anxiety and paranoia are a result of THC binding in your brain, not any real danger in the physical world that you must fear. Pay attention to the time that has elapsed since you consumed the cannabis product - inhaled cannabis products cause peaks in the most intoxicating forms of THC, Delta-9-THC and 11-Hydroxy-THC, at around the 10-15 minute mark after inhalation, with edibles peaking around 1-2 hours after consumption depending on your metabolic rate. So keep this timeframe in mind as a guide to when you’ll feel your “highest” - if you’re around 10-15 minutes after your last hit and feeling very negative effects, you’re as high as you’ll feel at that moment, and the effects will taper down from there. These little grounding steps can be extremely helpful for taking control of your situation, removing some of the uncertainty that can drive your fear, and providing a light at the end of the tunnel to the negative experience.
Drink Water and Eat a Light Snack - As we previously touched on, maintaining proper hydration before, during, and after cannabis consumption is critical to ensuring that you’ll feel well throughout the experience. If you start feeling like you’re heading to a negative place, try drinking some water and having a light, hearty snack like cheese and crackers or bread. Avoid overly sugary snacks and alcohol that may enhance the negative physical feelings you’re experiencing. Replenishing your body can help it feel more normal, and the act of taking time to drink a full glass of water and eat a snack can be enough of a distraction to take you out of that negative space or lessen the negative effects you’re experiencing.
Distract Yourself with Calming Music, Movies, or a Nap - Similar to the ritual of snacking, simply taking your mind elsewhere with a calming distraction can be helpful to ride out the effects of a THC overdose, which typically should not outlast 2-2.5 hours maximum for inhalation and 6 hours for edibles (in reasonable doses). Try watching a funny TV show or a beloved movie that uplifts you, listen to calming or soothing music, or take a nap if you feel able to do so. By not focusing on the negative experience and allowing your brain to be distracted, you can more easily pass the time until the feelings abate without spiraling in anxiety about the situation at hand.
At the end of the day, prevention is the best medicine, and approaching any new cannabis product with measured caution is always recommended. Consider starting a cannabis journal so you can keep track of the cannabis products you’ve tried, and how they made you feel at different doses - this will help you find your ideal THC dose across a wide range of products and the differing chemical matrixes in cannabis, as well as tracking your favorite terpenes and minor cannabinoids for various effects.
Speaking of terpenes, we’d be doing a disservice to the topic of negative cannabis experiences by not mentioning that certain terpenes, like Terpinolene for example, can cause anxiety or other negative feelings in certain sensitive individuals at high doses, and some may even cause allergies even at lower doses. So if a product, or products with the same terpene type/concentration in them, produce negative experiences for you across several doses, it may be that you have a sensitivity to that terpene, and you should take note of that and avoid it in products moving forward. This is much less common than THC overdose, but can certainly be the case. This is why approaching your cannabis journeys in a scientific fashion, paying close attention to the changing compounds in your products and how you respond to them, will ultimately lead you to the best experiences you can possibly get from the vast variety of cannabis products available.
We hope that these preventative and counteractive measures will empower you to take control of your experiences, so that you feel safe and confident in your cannabis consumption experimentations!