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Understanding Edible and Beverage Onset Times

Edibles and beverages are classed as ‘ingestible extracts’, which is a category that includes baked goods like cookies or brownies, gummies, and mints as well as drinks such as ready-to-drink (RTD) beverages and drops.

Edible cannabis and beverages can contain up to a maximum of 10mg of THC per package (with unlimited CBD) and federally regulated labels contain this information as well as health warning messages, dried cannabis equivalency, and ingredients.

Onset information is not a mandatory label requirement, but with onset times varying between products, it’s important to understand them in order to help customers choose the right products.  Fears of overconsumption can lead to fewer sales, so arming consumers with knowledge helps to quell these uncertainties.

Start Low and Go Slow
Start low and go slow is the best advice for consumers, but what does it mean? Health Canada suggests that new consumers look for products that contain 2.5mg or less of THC as an introduction to edibles. Even experienced flower fans might want to start low because when cannabis is ingested, it takes much longer for it to be absorbed into the bloodstream and for body and brain effects to be felt. Ingestion also metabolizes the THC into a stronger form, so a low dose edible may have a stronger effect than an inhalable. With a THC cap of 10mg on edibles and beverages, most are packaged to be split down into smaller portions that would allow customers to easily consume the recommended ‘starter’ dose of less than 2.5mg.

How do Edibles Get Digested?
“Most nutrients are absorbed in the small intestine after passing through the stomach, and cannabinoids are no exception,” explains Chris Bunka, CEO, Lexaria Bioscience Corp. “From there, most nutrients cross the intestinal wall and enter the hepatic vein into the liver, for processing by the liver into nutrient versions—metabolites—that the body can more easily and thoroughly utilize. This is where the Delta-9-THC in cannabis edibles is metabolized by the liver and altered into Delta-11-Hydroxy. This entire process is known as ‘first-pass liver metabolism’.”

There is another path for edibles known as a ‘short-cut’, which Lexaria Bioscience utilizes in its patented DehydraTECHTM. This processes the cannabinoids that are associated with certain long chain fatty acids like those the body manufactures and uses in healthy digestion. “DehydraTECHTM helps the cannabinoids cross the intestinal wall in a preferred manner, mostly avoiding the hepatic transport to the liver, and instead becoming absorbed in the lymphatic lacteals, for delivery into the blood ‘downstream’ of the liver.” This adaptation allows the Delta-9-THC to be delivered to cannabinoid receptor cells prior to the liver transformation into Delta-11-Hydroxy—giving it a faster onset time and an experience that is less like traditional edibles.

What Affects Onset Time?
Health Canada’s official advice about onset time suggests that it can take 30 minutes to two hours to begin to feel the effects of edibles, but up to four hours to feel the full effects. Effects can last up to 12 hours, and some residual effects could last up to 24 hours after use. Going slow means starting with a dose under 2.5mg and waiting for several hours, or possibly even the next day/session to try with a higher dose. This advice was echoed in LP-run campaigns such as Aurora’s Ready for Edibles website and outreach.

“A key consideration is that the same customer is likely to have a very different experience with edibles depending on how recently they last consumed a meal,” says Bunka. “Cannabis edible onset times will almost always be faster after a meal, than on an empty stomach. Initial onset, which may involve a feeling of flushing or tingling, typically will begin around 40-90 minutes after ingestion for most users. But those same users, on an empty stomach and with the same dose, might not experience initial onset for between 60 and 180 minutes.”

“Cannabis edible onset times will almost always be faster after a meal…

Ingredients can also affect onset times as common carrier oils such as medium chain triglyceride (MCT) from coconut oils tend to increase onset times, whereas long chain oils like sunflower or grape will tend to shorten onset times.

Consumption methods can also affect onset time. “A chocolate that is chewed and quickly swallowed will generally take effect more slowly than if it slowly dissolves in the mouth, due to a fraction of the THC absorbing through buccal cavity tissue in the mouth and throat,” says Bunka. “For the same reason of partial absorption in the tissues of the mouth and throat, beverages that are held in the mouth for a time can also support more rapid onset times.”

Fast-Onset Beverages
Health Canada onset times are based on edibles such as cookies and gummies,

whereas beverages have a much faster onset time of 10-15 minutes, as they are more rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream. Longer onset times can be off-putting for new consumers who may accidentally overconsume while waiting for effects.

“The technology of cannabis is evolving rapidly, so our cannabis beverage rapid onset technology means you can feel effects similar to beverage alcohol, in 10-15 minutes instead of the traditional hour,” says Paul Weaver, Canopy Growth’s Director of Innovation. “It’s all based on your metabolism; some people observe effects in just a few minutes or for some it’s 15 to 20 [minutes]. Equivalizing the cannabis experience to beverage alcohol is necessary to normalize the category and show people a new alternative.”

LPs are working on making consistent edibles, especially rapid-onset beverages, but with Health Canada and Canadian Food Inspection Agency regulation, the process of creating pharmaceutical grade food products is slow and arduous.

With many infused beverages featuring zero calories and no added sugar, rapid-onset cannabis drinks could give retailers the opportunity to rival the unregulated market and the legal alcohol market. Many retailers are opting to add fridges in preparation for summer when chilled cannabis beverages could be available in ready-to-drink formats. LPs are planning non-infused tastings that will be very similar to the final product as the cannabis distillate is virtually tasteless. This will give an opportunity for people to taste the products before retailers start selling them.

Rapid-onset cannabis drinks could give retailers the opportunity to rival the unregulated market.

“We think legal Canadian edibles and beverages designed specifically for new consumers (who have never been high) will drive foot traffic into the stores,” says Weaver. “If you’re a new retailer feeling the need for comparable products to the grey market, then the easiest and largest source of customers is new consumers, and the beverages and edibles are designed to address their unique needs and fears.”