You Should Know

January 2016 Issue




Safety Alert: Cannabis in Food

How safe are foods that contain cannabis? EN explores this growing trend.

There may not be a more controversial plant in existence than cannabis (aka marijuana). Long heralded as both a beneficial commodity for human use and a dangerous gateway drug, it has a rich history of human cultivation—and positions, political and otherwise—on its potential benefits or risks. Public opinions and laws on recreational and medicinal cannabis use have shifted dramatically in the last decade, with some states fully decriminalizing its use. Statistically, nearly half of American adults have used marijuana at least once.

Behind THC. The active cannabis component is tetrahydrocannabinol, better known as THC. Reported effects and benefits of THC include sensory alteration, pain reduction, appetite stimulation, and reduction of nausea. The push for medical legalization has come primarily from those suffering from chronic diseases like HIV and cancer, in which reducing pain and increasing appetite are an integral part of treatment.

Though the anecdotal evidence supporting these benefits is widely available, scientific research on the benefits is difficult to come by. For example, the Medicinal Plant Program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, has been unsuccessful in obtaining federal research grants to study cannabis, because it is listed by the U.S. government as a drug with no medicinal value and a risk for addiction.

marijuana plant

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Risks of edibles. Like any medication, there are risks. The “high” that is created from ingestion impacts motor skills (such as driving) and the relaxing effects may have social and professional costs. Along with new legalization and increased recreational use has come a rise in the practice of ingesting THC edibles. Edibles are foods, like brownies or cookies, which contain cannabis. THC is fat-soluble, and the most common cannabis-infused ingredients are oils and butters that are used in the baking process. Consuming THC orally, as opposed to smoking, may increase the dosage and levels of active metabolites. Problematically, this method takes more time to impact individuals, which increases the risk of overconsumption.

Earlier this year, the CDC released a report about a marijuana-related death in Colorado. Despite the warnings of the seller to only consume one sixth of the cannabis cookie, the young man continued to eat it because he “didn’t feel anything.” Not long after, he showed erratic behavior and jumped to his death from a fourth-story balcony.

The bottom line. Cannabis may prove to have medicinal benefits in the future, and its use will most likely increase. Therefore it’s important to consider safety first; discuss using it with your health care professional before you decide to include it for medicinal use in your regimen.

—Matt Ruscigno, MPH, RD