Maureen Dowd’s “Bad Trip”: Why People Have Bad Weed Trips and What to Do If It Happens to You

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Maureen Dowd’s “bad trip” has been hashed over a zillion times everywhere from mainstream media to cannabis publications to social media. On one hand, alarmists are focusing on the perceived dangers of edible cannabis, while others are slamming Dowd for her recklessness in consuming many times the recommended dosage of a potent cannabis-infused candy bar. What is getting less discussion time is what actually happens when a person consumes too much edible cannabis, and how to deal with unwanted side effects. We also need to recognize that real, honest cannabis education is necessary as we continue toward the goal of nationwide legalization.

The first thing we all need to accept is that negative reactions to eating cannabis are very real, and we need to discuss them.

I had an extremely unpleasant reaction to a cannabis edible once: I ate a delicious cookie provided by a well-known cannabis chef, and felt like total panicky shit for a few hours. I love cannabis, but I won’t lie: this sucked. My mind was racing – as was my heart – and if I didn’t know better, I would have really freaked out.

Fortunately, what I lack in tolerance, I make up for with knowledge.

I knew that an “overdose” couldn’t kill me – or even hurt me – but knowing this certainly didn’t stop the nasty feeling from lasting for a few hours. Though what I experienced physiologically was likely much like what Dowd experienced, I knew that I just had to wait it out for a couple of  hours and the unpleasantness would pass. During that time, I meditated, did stretching exercises, and ultimately fell asleep, but not before deciding that potent edible forms of cannabis weren’t a good choice for me.

But for people who have been raised on Reefer Madness propaganda, feeling trippy and panicked after eating cannabis edibles can surely lead the mind to ugly places, where echoes of prohibitionist warnings that cannabis is “dangerous” and “potentially deadly” undoubtedly rear their ugly heads.

If I’d felt that shitty and believed the propaganda? That would have really and truly sucked.

The reason people sometimes feel lousy after eating  THC is clearly explained by science. According to Dr. Julie Holland, MD, who has researched and written extensively on cannabis and other psychoactive drugs, “When cannabis is eaten rather than smoked or vaporized, the liver breaks down THC into a new compound, called 11 hydroxy-THC. This new drug lasts longer and is quite a bit more psychedelic than regular old THC,” explains Holland. “This is why some people when they eat too much pot feel like they’re tripping.”

So if you do choose to eat cannabis and have the regrets that come along with a “bad trip,” here’s what to do:

First and foremost, DON’T PANIC! Cannabis is a very safe natural substance, and what you’re feeling is going to go away in a few hours. You won’t feel like this forever, and you’re not going to die; in the history of human cannabis consumption over thousands of years, no one has ever died of a cannabis overdose. You’ll be ok, really.

The best thing to do is just relax, accept it, and wait it out. You can do like I did and stretch and meditate, or as cannabis expert Dr. Mitch Earleywine suggests, you can take a mild over-the-counter sedative such as Benadryl.

“No edible can defy a Benadryl and cartoons,” says Earleywine. “When you’ve had too much, take an antihistamine, turn on The Road Runner, and cuddle up with someone who loves you. It’s important to stay hydrated too.”

Another option that lessens the high of ingested THC is Citicholine, a synthesized version of a naturally-produced brain chemical that is available over-the-counter. Interestingly, the National Institute on Drug Abuse has studied Citicholine’s effectiveness in treating “marijuana addicts much like Antabuse is used for alcoholics, as it counteracts THC’s psychoactivity.

However, Citicholine is most effective when taken about an hour before ingesting cannabis, and it probably won’t do much to stop a “bad trip” that’s already started. Recreational users likely won’t want to take something beforehand that essentially defeats their purpose for eating cannabis, although Citicoline can be a good option for medical users who want the medicinal effects without the high.

Since Dowd’s article was published, prohibitionists, reform advocates, and cannabis business stakeholders have all proposed various ways to “protect” consumers, ranging from additional product labeling requirements, to a proposal further restricting the allowable content of THC in individually packaged edible products,  to an outright ban on edible forms of cannabis.

The best solution clearly isn’t a ban on edibles. Many medical cannabis patients rely on this administration method as the most effective way of treating their symptoms. As Chris Goldstein explains in this excellent article, since the effects of edibles last much longer than the effects of smoking or vaporizing, patients seeking overnight relief often use them to get a good night’s rest without having to wake up and smoke at all hours of the night.

Since Colorado voters chose to allow adult recreational use of cannabis (hooray!), it doesn’t make sense to limit recreational access to smokable forms either – after all, the only thing one needs to make edibles from legal flowers is access to a kitchen. Offering consumers the option of purchasing ready-made edibles manufactured by experienced professionals and labeled with specific THC content is certainly a responsible way of offering these products, along with knowledgeable staff in the retail outlets that dispense them.

Goldstein and others have also discussed the fact that edible cannabis is appealing to Colorado tourists and newbies because it’s discreet. Smoking cannabis is forbidden in most Colorado hotels and in public places around the state, but quietly eating a candy isn’t going to raise any red flags anywhere. And lots of health-conscious folks aren’t into smoking anything, which is certainly part of the edible appeal.

For these people, cannabis-infused hard candies or losenges might be a better place to start, while they are still learning how cannabis affects their own bodies as well as how cannabis affects the human body in general. With losenges or cannabis edibles that are sucked rather than swallowed, the cannabis is absorbed sublingually through the mucus membranes, greatly lessening liver processing and therefore limiting the potential effects.

Yes, you’ll get less of a “high” – and less of a medicinal effect – but you’ll mostly avoid the possibility of a “bad trip.” In fact, hard candies are my preferred (and much-loved) ingestion method – personally, I appreciate the discreet-ness of this option, and it provides a mellow high effect as well as the amount of pain relief I’m seeking.

But this certainly isn’t an advertorial about the wonders of the suckable edible and the dangers of the ingestible kind – it’s just more education and more information to add to the growing database of cannabis knowledge. For many people who use cannabis either recreationally or medically, edibles are their preferred form, and in the cannabis community, folks who comfortably enjoy edibles far outnumber those who don’t. I’ll admit it: I’m a lightweight; while a single cookie made me trippy and uncomfortable, most of my cannabis-loving friends and colleagues would probably have loved that cookie a whole lot.

Like much else in life, each and every person is different, and just because something isn’t enjoyable for one person doesn’t mean it isn’t a safe, effective, and/or enjoyable experience for others.

Perhaps the most effective way to prevent unwanted side effects of edible cannabis is through education. If we as a society – and as responsible members of the media, cannabis reform advocates, and industry stakeholders – can put Reefer Madness propaganda to rest for good, we can effectively educate the public about how the body processes cannabis, and how to properly titrate edibles.

When the real, potential side-effects of various forms of cannabis as well as its safety profile are as well-known to the general public as prohibitionist myths, newbies like Dowd will have better, more positive experiences with cannabis – and that’s exactly what the cannabis reform movement needs.