Don’t freak out: A cannabis guide for new, inexperienced or returning users

With legal sales finally under way in New Jersey and on the horizon in New York, cannabis has likely piqued the interest of some residents who have either never tried it or last smoked when they had to pick the seeds out of the grass before rolling a joint on their Led Zeppelin album cover.

Some longtime smokers may be overwhelmed by the current array of items available in dispensaries or get lost when the “budtender” starts talking about the ratio of THC to CBD. Gradual legalization across the country has generated a wide range of products, now more accessible to those who don’t already have a regular dealer in their cellphone contacts. Others might just be trying to figure out how to get high without becoming catatonic or freaking out with anxiety — especially since contemporary cannabis strains really do tend to be stronger than what was available in decades past.

Drew Bayly, director of operations for the Midwest at the New York-based cannabis company Columbia Care, previously worked as a sales associate at one of the company’s medical dispensaries in Illinois before overseeing the transition to recreational cannabis there.

He said early on after adult-use sales started, a lot of people came into the dispensaries who were not used to getting high but felt “a little more comfortable coming out and inquiring.” Some, he said, came in because they had FOMO, or fear of missing out. The most common questions budtenders get from newbies are around dosing and the different ways to consume cannabis, Bayly added.

While everyone’s body experiences cannabis differently — and some people discover it’s just not their thing — being armed with some basic information can make the process of experimenting a little smoother.

What’s the difference between THC and CBD?

Cannabis produces more than 100 different cannabinoids, compounds found in the plant that bind to receptors in the human body to produce physiological effects. But the two most well-known are THC and CBD. THC is the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, meaning it will get you high, while CBD, known for its calming properties, generally won’t.

A cannabis plant containing a practically negligible level of THC is considered hemp, whereas a plant containing higher levels of THC is referred to colloquially as marijuana. But CBD can be derived from hemp or marijuana.

On its own, CBD has been advertised as a way to quell anxiety, induce sleep and ease depression, among a wide range of other purported benefits — although research on these topics is still emerging.

Is weed really stronger now?

The short answer is yes, and that means you don’t have to smoke as much to get high — especially if you haven’t built up your tolerance yet.

The amount of THC in cannabis flower varies depending on the strain, but it was above 15%, on average, in 2018, compared to less than 4% just 30 years ago, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Meanwhile, there has not been the same increase in CBD concentrations.

Legal products often have labels showing ratios of THC to CBD that can be used as one indicator of what to expect. In New Jersey, labels must offer a general indication of the balance of the two chemicals, such as “Moderate CBD, Moderate THC,” or “High THC, Low CBD.” There’s evidence that CBD can help offset some of the negative effects of high levels of THC, such as paranoia.

“Products with a higher ratio of CBD to THC may diminish the cognitive effects of THC,” said Dr. Elizabeth Ardillo, director of medical education at Green Thumb Industries, a legal cannabis company based in Illinois that also operates in New York and New Jersey. “Some people say a 4:1 ratio of CBD to THC really negates the potential to feel high from THC, but for novice consumers, or those nervous about feeling high, I would recommend an even higher ratio of CBD to THC, like a 10:1 ratio or 20:1 ratio.”

Dr. Stacia Woodcock, a dispensary manager at Curaleaf, suggested a more balanced 1:1 ratio for those who are apprehensive about getting too high.

Should I eat it? Smoke it? Vape it?

Even deciding how to consume cannabis is more complicated than it once was, since the options are now vast — from drops that can be placed under the tongue to topical creams. Gone are the days of simply choosing between rolling a joint or packing a bowl.

The best way to decide how you prefer to consume cannabis — or whether you like the effects at all — might just be to experiment. But knowing about the benefits and drawbacks of some of the options going in can make the process easier and more enjoyable.

With edibles — which in New Jersey’s legal dispensaries are currently limited to clinical-looking products such as lozenges and capsules — the high comes on more gradually and lasts longer. Whereas people typically feel the effects of smoking or vaping pretty quickly, it might take 30 minutes to an hour to feel the effects of a gummy or a brownie.

It’s easier to control the dosage of THC in an edible, keeping in mind that labels on products that don’t come from licensed dispensaries might not be accurate. But it can be harder to know from the outset how much to consume, since the effects are delayed.

By contrast, if you take a couple of drags on a joint — which can even come conveniently pre-rolled at some dispensaries — you will typically know quickly how high you are getting and whether you want more. That’s because drugs absorbed through digestion take longer to enter the bloodstream compared to taking smoke into the lungs.

In edibles, the dosing can sometimes be counterintuitive, even in products that are regulated, said Dr. Lewis Nelson, chair of the department of emergency medicine and chief of the division of medical toxicology at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.

“Nobody really reads the label,” he said. “People just pick things up and say, ‘Oh, it’s a candy bar. It must be one serving.’ And before you know it, they’ve eaten nine times the recommended dose.”

Legal states tend to cap the total amount of THC allowed in a package of edibles, although unregulated edibles often exceed that cap. Regardless, the recommended dose is not necessarily the right amount to consume. For instance, a bag of gummies with 100 milligrams of THC might have 10 gummies, each with 10 milligrams of THC.

“Our recommendation would often be to start off with only a fraction of one of those pieces,” Bayly said of Columbia Care’s advice to cannabis newbies.

In its campaign urging people to “Consume Responsibly,” the Marijuana Policy Project suggested people take only 5 miligrams to start, while Bayly suggested even less.

“You can always take more,” he said. “You can’t really take less.”

When it comes to smoking, dosing is a little trickier. This nifty calculator from the Los Angeles Times estimates how many milligrams of THC you’re inhaling based on what strain you’re smoking and how fat your joint is. But it’s important to remember that there are lots of variables, such as how long you hold the smoke in your lungs, and that everyone is different.

A vape pen is also a convenient option that gets you high quickly and doesn’t have the same smell as a joint or bowl, although some research shows it can make the effects of THC stronger.

What should I do if I get too high?

Although cannabis is relatively safe compared to other drugs, the rise of edibles combined with a lack of literacy when it comes to dosing, has led to an increase in cannabis-related emergency room visits in recent years, said Nelson of Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.

“Sometimes they’re a little freaked out and anxious and we try to talk them down, de-escalate them,” Nelson said of patients who have consumed too much THC. Others, he said, come in “deeply obtunded,” or extremely out of it, in non-medical terms.

He said while there are extreme cases, it’s important for people to remember that they can usually just find a peaceful place to wait it out.

“Unlike with heroin or cocaine where overdoses are truly life-threatening from the drug effect, it’s hard to really overdose [on cannabis] to a point of real clinical consequences,” Nelson said.

Bayly said customers sometimes relate experiences of having gotten too high.

“As soon as they understand this is temporary and it’s just a little intense, they put on Netflix or something like that [to get through it],” he said. “It’s important to just stay in a good mood. [Find] something that’s lighthearted and just helps carry you through.”

For people who are uncomfortably high, Bayly also recommends hydrating, eating something, and having good company around — anything to “positively distract them from focusing on the intense moment.”

Not all cannabis shops are alike

Product offerings tend to vary from shop to shop, so you might not want to assume that what you purchased at one legal dispensary will be available at another. Stores often have product menus on their websites that let you check out what’s available before visiting, or you can enter your location and search for specific strains and products on Leafly.

In New York, where there are no licensed recreational dispensaries yet, you can still buy cannabis at the store but it can be a bit harder to tell what you’re getting. Since legalization, some stores have started selling THC products outright, although it’s important to keep in mind they aren’t necessarily regulated or tested, even if they appear to come from other legal states.

Some stores also advertise that they sell cannabis and may even hang a big pot leaf out front, but they actually only sell hemp-derived products such as CBD and Delta-8 THC.

Delta-8 is extremely similar to the Delta-9 THC most people are used to, except it’s considered somewhat less potent — and it’s typically created in a lab. Because it can be manufactured from cannabinoids extracted from hemp, Delta-8 originated as an attempt to dodge the laws around marijuana. New York regulators have since prohibited licensed CBD retailers from selling Delta-8. But some still consider it less risky than selling products containing the old-fashioned Delta-9.

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