Cannabis — colloquially sometimes called marijuana or weed — refers to the dried flowers, seeds, stems, and leaves of the Cannabis sativa L species of plants (1).
It’s a popular substance millions of people use either for pleasure or to treat chronic health conditions. Cannabis can be used in a number of ways, but some of the most popular methods include smoking, vaping, and eating (sometimes known as “edibles”).
However, some people wonder whether it’s safe to eat cannabis-containing products and whether ingesting it has the same effects as smoking or vaping.
This article explains whether it’s safe to eat cannabis products and the health effects — both positive and negative — related to ingestion.
The short answer is yes; you can eat cannabis. In fact, cannabis-infused foods or drinks have been consumed throughout history, as far back as 1000 B.C. (
Cannabis was used as medicine in ancient China and India and was introduced to Western medicine in the early 19th century. Edible applications, such as tinctures, were prescribed to treat various conditions, from chronic pain to digestive disorders (
Edible cannabis products were also used to relieve stress and induce euphoria, similar to alcohol.
Bhang, a beverage made from a mixture of the leaves and flowers of cannabis plants, has been consumed for centuries during religious festivals, such as Holi, a Hindu festival of love and color (
In the United States, recreational use of edible cannabis products became popular during the 1960s, and today, many different types of edibles are available, both legally and illegally, depending on state laws.
For example, gummies, candies, chocolates, capsules, teas, and oils are some of the edible cannabis products sold in both legal cannabis dispensaries and through the illegal cannabis market.
Edibles enthusiasts also make their own cannabis products by infusing butter or oil with cannabis and mixing it into baked goods and other recipes.
Though you can eat raw cannabis, it won’t have the same effect as consuming cannabis-based products, as it has to go through a process known as decarboxylation to become activated (
Raw cannabis contains tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) and cannabidiolic acid (CBDA), compounds that must be exposed to heat, such as in smoking or baking, to turn into the active forms, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) (
Therefore, eating raw cannabis will not result in the same effects as consuming cannabis that has been heated, as in edible products like candies, tinctures, and baked goods.
Though you can’t get high from eating raw cannabis, some cannabis proponents believe that eating it may offer unique health benefits due to the wide array of plant compounds it contains.
Yet, research in this area is lacking, so the potential therapeutic benefit of raw cannabis is still unclear.
Cannabis has been consumed in various forms throughout history for both medicinal and recreational purposes. Though you can eat raw cannabis, it won’t have the same effects as cannabis that has been heated.
Cannabis has many potential medicinal benefits and has been used to treat various ailments throughout history.
Today, edible cannabis product usage among patients is becoming increasingly popular, and polls consistently show most healthcare professionals believe that cannabis should be a medical option for patients.
May benefit certain health conditions
Edible cannabis products are often used to treat conditions, such as:
Medical cannabis products can legally be prescribed in countries around the world, including Italy, Spain, and Germany, and “recommended” by physicians in dozens of U.S. states that have legalized cannabis (
THC is one of over 100 unique compounds — known as cannabinoids — in cannabis.
THC is the compound responsible for the intoxicating properties of cannabis products, including edibles, that may induce feelings of euphoria and relaxation (
Other compounds in cannabis, such as CBD, are non-intoxicating and have been shown to have anxiety-reducing or anti-inflammatory properties.
In fact, pharmaceutical companies manufacture oral preparations of cannabis-derived treatments, such as Sativex, which is an oral spray that contains equal amounts of THC and CBD prescribed to treat pain and muscle spasticity (
Though edible cannabis products are commonly used to treat many other ailments, such as digestive and neurological disorders, high quality research in these areas is lacking.
Therefore, the full therapeutic potential of cannabis is still unknown (
Edible cannabis is used to treat symptoms related to various medical conditions, such as cancer and chronic pain. However, high quality studies are lacking, so the full effects of cannabis products on health are still unclear.
Though edible cannabis products may benefit many conditions, some potential negative effects may occur.
The main issue with edible cannabis products is that it can be very difficult to determine an appropriate dosage. Concentrations of THC vary widely depending on different factors, such as where the product was made and the quality of the cannabis used.
Additionally, unlike smoking cannabis, edible cannabis products have a long latency period, meaning it can take a while — sometimes hours — for it to take effect.
When cannabis is smoked, THC reaches the brain and takes effect within a few minutes. The effects peak at around 20–30 minutes after smoking and begin to wear off within 2–3 hours (
In contrast, the psychoactive effects of edibles usually take 30–90 minutes to kick in. The effects last much longer and typically peak at about 2–4 hours after ingestion depending on how much was ingested, as well as your body weight, metabolism, gender, and other factors (
The combination of the highly variable THC concentration and the long latency period of edible cannabis products makes them very easy to unintentionally overconsume, which can lead to unwanted symptoms, such as paranoia and impaired motor ability.
Hence the adage “start low and go slow” when ingesting edibles, especially for new users, which means start with a low dose and wait several hours before taking any more.
Additionally, though rare, there have been instances of cannabis-induced psychosis, a temporary condition usually related to overconsumption of edible cannabis products that results in symptoms like paranoid delusions, extreme sedation, hallucinations, and confusion (
Other side effects related to edible cannabis products include dry mouth, sleepiness, and changes in visual perception.
Another concern is that edible cannabis products often resemble regular candies, cookies, and other baked goods, posing a risk for children, pets, and other adults.
In fact, between 2005 and 2011, cannabis-related calls to U.S. poison control centers increased by 30 percent per year in states that decriminalized cannabis. Many of these calls were related to accidental ingestion of edible cannabis products (
Edible cannabis products can be difficult to dose and take a long time to kick in. They also resemble regular food products, which may lead to accidental ingestion.
Though smoking cannabis is not often considered harmful, research has shown that inhaling cannabis smoke can negatively affect health, similar to cigarette smoke.
Both cigarette and cannabis smoke contain toxins, such as ammonia, hydrogen cyanide, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, that may damage your lungs and increase the risk of illness (
Currently, some research shows a weak link between smoking cannabis and certain types of cancer, although it does not appear to be significantly associated with lung cancer (
Yet, scientists emphasize that it’s unclear whether or to what extent smoking cannabis influences cancer risk, as many available studies are of low quality, and confounding variables, such as cigarette smoking, affect study results (
In contrast, edible cannabis products have not been shown to negatively affect lung health or cancer risk.
Therefore, if you’re concerned about the possible health risks associated with smoking cannabis, you may want to use edible cannabis products as an alternative.
However, because most cannabis research focuses on smoking cannabis, the long-term health implications of consuming edibles are still unknown.
Nevertheless, ingesting cannabis is potentially safer than smoking it. More research needs to be done to confirm this theory.
Cannabis smoke contains toxins that may negatively affect health. Though edibles are likely safer, the long-term health implications of these products are still unknown due to a lack of research.
Many people enjoy using cannabis products to relax and ease stress, while some take edibles to treat or improve symptoms of a medical condition.
Either way, it’s important to use safe products and choose appropriate dosages to avoid unwanted side effects.
If you’re interested in using edibles to treat a medical condition, talk with your doctor to learn if medical marijuana is an option.
Depending on where you live, you might be able to get a physician’s “recommendation.” In the United States, 36 states allow the use of medical marijuana. It has also been legalized in countries around the world, including Canada and many European countries (20, 21).
Some conditions that may warrant a medical marijuana physician’s recommendation include:
- chronic pain
- multiple sclerosis
- terminal illness
- inflammatory bowel disease
In contrast, recreational use of cannabis is illegal in many parts of the world, including many parts of the United States. As of 2021, 16 states, two territories, and the District of Columbia currently allow for the use of recreational cannabis products (22).
However, even though cannabis is legal to use in many U.S. states, it remains illegal at a federal level and is considered a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), alongside drugs like heroin.
According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Schedule I substances are “determined to have a high potential for abuse” and are defined as having “no currently accepted medical use” (23).
Yet, many disagree with this classification, especially those who have seen firsthand that cannabis products offer medicinal and therapeutic benefits for many people.
In fact, scientists have repeatedly questioned this classification which prevents research on real world cannabis and only allows U.S. scientists to study cannabis that the federal government grows in Mississippi. Some argue that the current legal status is outdated and “thwarts legitimate research” exploring the potential of cannabis use in the medical field (
Though both social and political views on cannabis are changing rapidly, for now, citizens must abide by the laws set forth by state and federal governments for the use of both medical and recreational cannabis.
Purchasing safe cannabis products
When using edible cannabis for the first time — whether for medical or recreational reasons — it’s important to do so safely.
Sticking to prescribed dosage and usage recommendations can help reduce your risk for potential negative effects related to overconsumption.
If purchasing edible cannabis products in a state where recreational use is legal, only purchase products from a licensed dispensary that you trust.
Licensed dispensaries are often required to have their products tested for safety and potency in state-accredited laboratories to be approved for sale.
However, testing protocols vary considerably from state to state, and some don’t require laboratory testing (
It’s important to note that cannabis bought from illegal operations or dispensaries that sell untested products can be contaminated with pesticides, mold, fungi, bacteria, heavy metals, formaldehyde, and other substances that can pose serious health risks (
Dispensaries typically carry a variety of cannabis products with different concentrations of THC and CBD, which can be confusing for first-time buyers.
The legality of cannabis varies, so the use of both medical and recreational cannabis products depends on where you live. Only purchase cannabis products from trusted sources and follow dosing recommendations carefully.
Edible cannabis products may offer various benefits, including reducing symptoms of chronic illnesses and anxiety.
Still, these products may cause side effects, react with common medications, and take a long time to kick in.
Depending on where you live, you may be able to use medicinal or recreational products legally.
However, it’s important to only purchase from licensed, reputable dispensaries that sell products tested for purity and potency.