In the Weed

Can You Overdose on THC?

Subjective standards, state-by-state laws, and underdeveloped policy leaves much up to the cannabis consumer.

By Taylor McKenzie Gerlach August 26, 2022

In July, Jones Soda announced a new line of cannabis-infused soda boasting, in one case, 100 milligrams of THC in a single 16-ounce can. Isn't that a lot, we pondered. One concerned reader even wrote us asking if, perhaps, our story about the launch had accidentally added an extra zero to that dosage. There was no typo.

In Washington, the standard dose of THC, and maximum legally allowed on shelves, in edibles and drinkables is 10mg. Other states opt for a more conservative 5mg standard, and Oregon only increased its limits from five to 10mg this spring.

But Washington (and now Oregon) allows each package to contain up to 10 doses, or 100mg total of THC. Enter brightly colored gummy packets—and that 16-ounce can of THC-laced pop, coming soon to dispensary shelves around the state. While edibles must be packed in individually wrapped 10mg doses, that rule doesn’t translate to liquids. And, frankly, doling out sips to your nine best friends seems a laughable expectation.

With controls around dosing so nebulous, it's plausible that a consumer could consume too much. But how much THC is actually too much? It’s “so unbelievably variable,” explains Beatriz Carlini at the University of Washington’s Addictions, Drug, and Alcohol Institute.

Take alcohol—a person with low body weight who has never tried alcohol before may react strongly to one drink, while a routine drinker may be able to consume many without feeling impaired. It's the same thing with THC, where tolerance, body weight, and metabolism determine the substance's effects on an individual.

Seattle-based cannabis site Leafly recommends one to 2.5mg for a first-time THC user, reserving the 10mg retail standard for subjectively “high tolerance THC users,” both medical and recreational. According to Leafly's dosage chart, 100mg can cause seriously impaired coordination and perception, with the potential of side effects like nausea, pain, and increased heart rate. These higher doses are recommended only for experienced THC consumers or patients living with cancer and health conditions that necessitate high doses to combat pain.

Carlini says dosage is still the center of a huge debate in the scientific, public health, and clinical communities. The other concern is how those high THC edibles and drinkables are marketed: Bright labels, funky packaging, and inviting branding make the products attractive—not just to adults. The Washington Poison Center recorded 163 instances of THC intoxication in children under the age of 12 in the first nine months of 2020, up from 120 during the same timeframe in 2019. 

Until 2020, the drink industry was required to include a small dosage cup, similar to the ones accompanying cough medicine. Now bottles and cans have printed lines to help consumers judge where a dose ends, but Carlini worries they aren’t as effective, causing users to accidentally consume more THC than intended. It’s not just anxiety raining from an ivory tower; calls into the Washington Poison Center citing too much drinkable THC have roughly doubled every year since 2017.

Aside from uncomfortable but passing side effects, Carlini says frequent consumption of high doses of THC, combined with biological and social risk factors, increases the risk of developing cannabis use disorder. Research about whether cannabis is an addictive substance is still underway.

For now, Carlini suggests navigating this “uncharted territory” by employing tactics we've tested with tobacco and alcohol products. Namely, taxing products based on their strength to send a monetary message to consumers about the potency and dosage count in each product. In her ideal world, drinkables would be capped with a more intuitive, lower number of servings per can. But she’ll pick her battles: Reverting to the medicine-like dosage cup for THC-laced drinkables would help create a more informed consumer base.“It's not fancy,” she admits, but maybe we don’t need fancy.

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