Are cannabis drinks the new alcohol?

Key points to remember

  • THC-infused drinks are marketed as healthier alternatives to alcohol.
  • Marijuana is classified in the United States as a Schedule I drug, which makes it difficult to conduct randomized controlled trials of this substance.
  • Experts say that without these studies, it’s hard to know the health effects of THC-infused drinks.

As more states legalize cannabis for recreational use, weed-infused beverages are being touted as a healthier alternative to alcohol.

More and more bars and liquor brands are introducing drinks containing THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis that gets people high. Minnesota breweries now offer THC-infused seltzers after lawmakers legalized edibles, though the trend started earlier in more weed-friendly states like Colorado and California.

THC-infused drinks can appeal to people who want a social buzz without the effects of alcohol, and some products are marketed as low-calorie, natural, and “hangover-free.”

But health experts are skeptical of the health benefits of this relatively new form of consumable cannabis due to a lack of research.

Legalize Cannabis

While cannabis remains illegal at the federal level, 19 US states and Washington DC have recreational use legalized. However, allowances vary from state to state. For example, recreational cannabis use is legal in New Jersey, but dispensaries are not allowed to sell perishables such as cookies. In Minnesota, where recreational smoking or vaping weed is illegal, lawmakers recently allowed sales of edibles containing 5 mg of THC per serving.

Since cannabis is still a federally illegal drug, controlled clinical trials on the health effects of THC are extremely limited. A “standard dose” of cannabis has not yet been established, said Kelly Johnson-Arbour, MDmedical toxicologist and medical co-director of the National Capital Poison Control Centre.

“I’m sure there is a ‘toxic’ threshold dose of cannabis,” Johnson-Arbor said. “In terms of liquid formulations, we don’t have that information yet.”

Most weed-infused drinks on the market state that they contain around 2-10mg of THC. For some people, just 2mg of THC could cause a high, while others might not experience the same effects even at higher doses, according to Leah Sera, PharmD, MA, BCPSco-director of the Medical Cannabis Science and Therapeutics program at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy.

“The effects of THC are extremely individualized – everyone reacts differently to cannabis products,” Sera told Verywell in an email.

While the National Institute on Drug Abuse established a standard unit of THC at 5mg for clinical research purposes, there are no official recommendations on what is safe for consumption.

What are the risks of cannabis-infused drinks?

Some THC-infused sodas like CANN claim to be hangover-free, but that’s misleading.

Whether a person experiences “lingering cognitive effects” the day after drinking THC drinks depends on different factors, such as how many drinks they have consumed and their level of tolerance, according to Tory R. Spindle, Ph.D.assistant professor and researcher at the John Hopkins Cannabis Science Laboratory.

Some cannabis drinks are made with a relatively new nanoemulsion technology that allows THC to be absorbed faster than other edibles. Although the liquid form may come into action in five to 10 minutessome edibles can take up to four hours to reach their maximum psychoactive effects.

Experts fear people are taking more drinks than they can tolerate while waiting for a buzz. And since individuals can react very differently to edibles, it is much more difficult to gauge how much of the product they should be consuming.

THC can cause slower reaction time and impaired coordination, and the effects can last over eight hours, so it’s best not to drive after consuming any amount of cannabis. Overconsumption of THC can also lead to nausea, paranoia, and rapid heartbeat.

Will we see more research on THC-infused drinks?

Experts say there is still a lot to learn about cannabis drinks and their impact on behavior and long-term health.

“It’s a bit like the Wild West with these products and there’s very little regulation,” Margaret Haney, Ph.D.professor of neurobiology and director of the Cannabis Research Laboratory at Columbia University Medical Center, told Verywell.

Cannabis is currently classified as a Schedule I drug, which the Drug Enforcement Administration defines as a drug with “no currently accepted medical use and high potential for abuse.” LSD and heroin are also listed in Schedule I.

There are huge regulations in place when scientists attempt to conduct research with a Schedule I drug, Haney explained.

“So the implication is that it’s very difficult to do good randomized, placebo-controlled clinical studies with cannabis,” she said. Without these studies, it is difficult to fully understand how cannabis edibles affect the human body.

Cannabis use has been shown to lead to addiction or use disorder. But the likelihood of a person developing marijuana use disorder after drinking THC-infused beverages is still unclear.

“There’s a huge industry out there promoting cannabis products, for just about every indication, and it’s all happening instead of all data,” Haney said.

What this means for you

Experts say that since cannabis drinks can look like seltzer or juice, they should be kept out of reach of children. Edibles may cause difficulty in breathing, standing or walking in children. If you suspect someone is suffering from cannabis poisoning, contact a trusted healthcare provider or poison control.

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