Last year, The Weed Eater column debuted on 4/20 with a promise to take readers on “a cannabis-fueled culinary journey.” Since then, we’ve made a gourmet marijuana meal at Hunter S. Thompson’s house, sampled Melissa Etheridge’s weed-infused wine, brewed up some pot-fueled bulletproof coffee, explored the Joy of Cooking (while really stoned), concocted strain-specific cannabis cocktails, examined the Grateful Dead’s lasting influence on how we eat, and even shared a meal with Nonna Marijuana, the 92-year-old queen of cannabis cuisine. But perhaps, amid all the munchies and merriment, we’ve failed to make clear something vitally important: Marijuana edibles aren’t safe.
Created and consumed responsibly, they do happen to be far safer for your body than alcohol, pharmaceuticals, and processed sugar, but that’s small consolation to those who end up overdoing it; consequences can range from mild discomfort to serious dysphoria. As the world’s millions of marijuana enthusiasts make their preparations for the annual high holiday of April 20 (a.k.a. “4/20”), let us pause for just a moment to go over a few ground rules when it comes to eating ganja.
We’ll begin with the cautionary tale of Luke Gregory Goodman, a young man from Tulsa, Oklahoma who recently took his own life while on a ski vacation in Keystone, Colorado—reportedly after ingesting marijuana-infused candy purchased at a nearby store.
It will be weeks before a toxicology report on the 22-year-old’s body determines what, exactly, he ingested in the final hours of his life. The Summit County Coroner’s Office has already confirmed his death via a gunshot wound to the head as “consistent with a suicide,” while leaving the unanswerable question open: What role did the cannabis candy he ate play in that horrific outcome?
Luke’s mother, however, has already told KCNC-TV in Denver that she knows for certain edibles alone are to blame. “It was completely a reaction to the drugs,” Kim Goodman said. “There was no depression or anything that would leave us being concerned.”
It’s worth noting that parents don’t always recognize the warning signs of serious depression in their children, and that not all those with suicidal tendencies show pronounced symptoms, but none of that is really relevant at this point, except in hindsight. What’s important now is that the death of someone so young, no matter how or why it happens, rips a hole in the world for those left behind. And the Goodman’s aren’t the only ones feeling that loss. Last year, Levy Thamba, a 19-year-old college student from Wyoming, jumped from a four-floor hotel balcony after eating pot cookies, prompting the Denver coroner to take the unprecedented step of listing “marijuana intoxication” as a significant condition contributing to his death.
Predictably, in both instances, those who’ve long demonized the devil’s lettuce leapt at the chance to use these terrible tragedies as a rallying cry for a return to cannabis prohibition. But what should be kept in mind is that whether they’re legal or not, people will always eat edibles, even though doing so is an inherently risky behavior.
As is skiing, for that matter, which was the primary reason that Luke Goodman traveled to the mountains with a few of his cousins. In the 2011 ski season alone, Colorado hosted 11 million skier visits that resulted in 19 deaths. For comparison, in 2014, Colorado’s legal marijuana retailers sold over 4.8 million edible marijuana products, with two suicides indirectly linked to their use.
In both cases, the young men involved were inexperienced marijuana users who ingested far higher doses of THC than the state recommends. According to his cousin, Luke Goodman had never tried edibles before, but consumed five times the state’s official suggested dose of 10 milligrams of THC, even though that recommendation was clearly listed on the product’s label and Colorado state law mandated that each individual candy provide precisely that amount. The same label also warned that “the intoxicating effects of this product may be delayed by two or more hours,” but Luke reportedly waited only a small fraction of that time before going from eating two candies, to two more, and then another. He “seemed fine for a long time” after that, but then turned a corner during an “intense debate” they got into about religion and politics, according to his cousin, who told a Denver CBS affiliate that Goodman became “pretty weird and relatively incoherent.” When his traveling companion suggested soaking in the ski resort’s hot tub to ease tensions after their argument, Luke refused, so his cousin left him alone. A few minutes later, he heard a pistol shot.
In reporting on the suicide, the Washington Post described the Goodman’s as “a gun family.” This is the part where I’m supposed to point out America’s approximately 33,000 gun fatalities per year and then start blaming guns and maybe even “gun culture” for Luke Goodman’s death. But in both instances, that’s just an exercise in shifting blame. And as the sad case of Levy Thamba proves, you don’t need a gun to kill yourself while too high on edibles.
A comparison of the relative safety of marijuana and guns is really not all that instructive because guns are designed to cause harm to the human body, making their ability to kill people a function, not a bug. So instead, let’s compare marijuana to a few other things hundreds of millions of humans willingly put into their bodies.
Pot vs. Pills
According to the Center for Disease Control, fatal prescription drug overdose rates have tripled in the United States since 1990, and now outpace car accidents as the nation’s leading cause of preventable death. More than 100,000 Americans die each year from prescription drugs—around 270 per day. Meanwhile, there’s no such thing as a fatal marijuana overdose.
Buds vs. Booze
Nearly 88,000 humans die from alcohol-related causes annually in the United States alone, making it the country’s third leading preventable cause of death according to the National Institute of Health. And in 2011, a study showed that marijuana can help protect the brain from damage caused by binge drinking. A more recent study found that marijuana may actually protect the liver from alcohol-related cirrhosis.
Reefer vs. Refined Sugar
According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, people who consume more than 21 percent of daily calories from added sugar have double the risk of death from heart disease as those who consumed less than 10 percent of calories from added sugars. Excess sugar intake is also a serious risk factor in the development of diabetes, cancer, and other potentially fatal diseases. Meanwhile, marijuana usage has been showed to treat and even prevent both cancer and diabetes.
Weed vs. Cheese
According to The New York Times, “Americans now eat an average of 33 pounds of cheese a year,” making it a significant factor in obesity, a major factor in fatalities linked to heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Meanwhile, a 2011 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that obesity rates are roughly a third lower in people who ingest marijuana at least three times a week compared with those who don’t use marijuana at all.
So no wonder DEA Administrative Law Judge Francis Young once determined that, “In strict medical terms, marijuana is far safer than many foods we commonly consume.”