Pete Brady has a master’s degree in counseling, and several years’ experience listening to the concerns of pot people and doing marijuana journalism. We welcome your questions on cannabis health, ethics, etiquette or activism. Send your emails to [email protected].
Ganja overdose?

I went to Amsterdam, ate two space cakes, and felt like I was going to die! Is it possible to overdose on marijuana?

Canal Chris,
Torrance, CA

Glad you survived the cakes and the canal, Chris. You’re not the first spacecaked American to go for an unplanned swim in Amsterdam.

I asked several marijuana experts, including Dr Lester Grinspoon, Dr Ethan Russo, Mary Lynn Mathre, RN, and Dr Tod Mikuriya, if a person could really “overdose” on marijuana.

These experts cited conclusive research showing that marijuana does not shut down respiration, heartbeat, or other vital life-giving processes. In fact, marijuana has not even been shown to lead directly to unconsciousness or coma, no matter how much marijuana is ingested. Two thousand years of legitimate medical history contain no references to any deaths attributable to marijuana toxicity.

Eating marijuana produces effects that differ from smoking marijuana because eaten marijuana is processed through the liver, where it is metabolized into a form of THC that is more powerful and long-lasting than THC ingested via smoked marijuana.

The intensely unique high produced by orally administered marijuana, or by an unexpectedly potent smoked dose of marijuana or hashish, can create effects that mimic serious illness. Physical effects include sedation, dizziness, numbness, muscle relaxation, loss of coordination, sensory deprivation, nausea, headache, and flu-like symptoms. Psychological effects of a marijuana “overdose” can include racing thoughts, confusion, memory loss, hallucinations, paranoia, depersonalization, nightmares, and depression.

Most people who experience overwhelming negative effects from an unexpectedly high dose of marijuana are novice users whose unfamiliarity with marijuana causes fear of extreme consciousness alteration. Some people who feel that they are “too high” tend to tighten up and resist the stone, which causes their bodies and minds to stress out even further. This resistance adds to paranoia and anxiety, creating a disabling feedback loop, with tension and psychological blocking exacerbating a sense of panic and lack of control that reinforces negative feelings.

It’s easy to avoid these problems. When smoking an unfamiliar or especially potent form of cannabis, titrate your dose by taking only one initial inhalation. Then wait at least ten minutes, monitoring the effects of the first hit. You can then determine if you need to take in any more marijuana.

If you’re going to eat or drink a marijuana preparation, have a small amount of food and water in your stomach when you take your first bite of space cake, brownies or whatever ganja snack/beverage you’re ingesting. Wait at least 60 minutes, monitoring your body and mind for signs of vertigo, nausea, headache, or psychological discomfort. After 120 minutes, almost all effects of orally ingested marijuana will be apparent. You can then determine the relative strength of the product you have eaten, and adjust future doses accordingly.

According to Dr Grinspoon, “Marijuana is one of the least lethal of all medicinal substances known to humans.” You cannot die from using marijuana, even in an acute dose situation, even though you might feel very sick. To counter the effects of too much pot, eat modest amounts of healthy food that does not contain fats, drink a natural caffeine tea (like green tea), or a calming tea (like chamomile) and rest quietly with a trusted friend or lover in a safe place. Eventually, the drug will exit from your body and the high will become manageable if not enjoyable.

Marijuana is far safer than alcohol, which can quickly injure or kill people in doses that cost only a few dollars. The smoked and oral ingestion of cannabis has been part of religious, sexual and recreational rituals for centuries. If you can learn to accommodate and flow with what might initially seem to be an “overdose,” you can explore inner space and achieve significant pleasure and insight.