Can You Overdose on Marijuana?

Can you overdose on weed?” is one of the most common questions asked by people not familiar with cannabis. Marijuana is now legal for recreational use in 11 states plus the District of Columbia, and its medicinal use is permitted in 33 states. This growing acceptance has reignited conversations about the safety of the drug. While advocates insist that marijuana is safer than alcohol, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency still classifies cannabis as a Schedule I drug alongside heroin and LSD.

Does this mean that there is cause for concern? Specifically, can you overdose on marijuana? The TLDR answer is no, you won’t overdose on marijuana even if you make Cheech and Chong look like lightweights. Still, it’s worth assessing why overdosing is so unlikely with marijuana and exploring whether there are other risks that a user should consider.

Why You Won’t Overdose on Marijuana

There’s a legitimate scientific reason why you can’t overdose on cannabis. According to the National Cancer Institute, “Because cannabinoid receptors, unlike opioid receptors, are not located in the brainstem areas controlling respiration, lethal overdoses from cannabis and cannabinoids do not occur.”

Dr. Debra Kimless, a board-certified anesthesiologist with a subspecialty certification in pain medicine, concurred that marijuana overdose is not a possibility because “cannabis doesn’t stop people from breathing or their hearts from beating, like opioids do.”

As of this writing, there has yet to be a single reported overdose from marijuana. CDC data has found that the drugs most responsible for overdose fatalities are:

  • Narcotics like fentanyl
  • Prescription opioids
  • Heroin
  • Cocaine
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Psychostimulants like meth
  • Antidepressants

The number of reported cannabis deaths is zero.

In addition, there are over 2,000 deaths every year resulting from alcohol poisoning, and 6.2% of U.S. adults struggle with alcohol addiction. That’s why many marijuana advocates cite cannabis as being “safer” than alcohol.

To break it down a bit more, marijuana produces compounds known as cannabinoids. When consumed, these cannabinoids bind to the body’s own endocannabinoid receptors, CB1 and CB2. These receptors aren’t localized to the brain; they’re located all throughout the body and influence functions like memory, pain, and appetite.

Though researchers are only starting to understand how the endocannabinoid system works, the interactions between cannabinoids and cannabinoid receptors appear to be largely positive in their effects.

Why Is Marijuana Classified as a Schedule I Drug?

The DEA defines Schedule I drugs as “drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” The definition doesn’t speak to the safety of the drug, only to its medical value and abuse potential.

Because marijuana research is still in its infancy, there haven’t been enough long-term clinical studies for the FDA to recommend cannabis for medical use. However, the FDA has approved a number of cannabis-based and cannabinoid-based medications, including Marinol, Syndros, and Cesamet, so it’s likely only a matter of time before the FDA updates its cannabis recommendation and the DEA revises its drug scheduling.

In terms of the potential for abuse, marijuana can be addictive. When a user becomes dependent on the drug, the condition is known as marijuana use disorder. Research shows that about 1 in 11 users develops this type of dependency, and it’s especially prevalent among people who started using the drug during adolescence. This is reason for caution and moderation, but there’s also good news.

Though a dry spell can lead to unpleasant withdrawal symptoms like headaches, chills, anxiety, and irritability, these symptoms are temporary and non-life-threatening. Compare that to extreme alcohol withdrawal, which can often be fatal when not treated with medically supervised detox. Clinical research has found that marijuana poses less of a dependency risk when compared to other commonly used drugs.

Overdose vs Bad Reaction

Though you’re not likely to overdose, that doesn’t mean you can’t have a bad reaction to cannabis. Overuse can result in a bad experience characterized by hallucinations, confusion, anxiety, paranoia, and even panic attacks. These effects typically occur when the THC dosage exceeds the body’s ability to metabolize the compound.

Certain highly potent delivery systems are especially conducive to this type of reaction. Marijuana concentrates and edibles are often responsible for bad reactions because of their dense concentration of THC.

A concentrated hash oil can contain up to 80 percent THC, making it up to four times stronger than your typical cannabis experience. Edibles tend to have a more potent effect because they’re metabolized by the liver and broken down into additional potent compounds like 11-OH-THC—which is far more psychoactive than the un-metabolized THC that enters your system via smoking.

Although a bad reaction can leave you feeling like you’re going to die, the effects will go away within a few hours. Often, the best response is to lay down and try to sleep it off if possible. Do not attempt to drive while the effects are still present.

To avoid this type of reaction in the first place, it’s important to monitor your dosage carefully. If you’re new to cannabis use or unsure of your limitations, try microdosing or ingest no more than 5 to 10mg of THC at a time. Increase the dosage gradually only as you understand the effects on your body. Everyone’s metabolism is different. Some users will have a bad reaction after 15 to 20mg while others can consume over 200mg with no problem.

As long as you know your limitations and avoid risky behaviors while high, you should have nothing to worry about when indulging in cannabis.

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