Cannabis Edibles: A Guide For Australian Patients

Alternaleaf Team
Written by
Alternaleaf Team
Nov 20, 2023
Last updated:
Jan 15, 2024

Edible cannabis is exactly what the name suggests: cannabis you can eat. This doesn't mean simply consuming the raw flower – cannabis compounds need to be ‘activated’ during the preparation process for their effects to appear.

Cannabis edibles come in many different forms. Some of the most common cannabis-infused foods are cookies, gummies, butter and brownies. One of the issues with these unregulated products is that they can contain very high amounts of THC, which is part of why edibles are notorious for causing unpleasant experiences. It’s difficult or impossible to tell the strength of a cannabis product if it’s sourced illegally or made at home.

Edible cannabis isn’t a common prescription option in Australia, despite its popularity overseas. Cannabis oils and capsules, however, are commonly prescribed and our bodies process them in a very similar way to edibles. This means that much of the information about cannabis edibles also applies to oils and capsules. Read on for a primer on the benefits and risks of edible cannabis, how it works and some important safety considerations.

How Are Cannabis Edibles Different To Vaping?

Cannabis edibles produce effects that last longer and take more time to appear compared to inhalation. When you vape medical cannabis, the effects appear within minutes. This is because the lungs quickly absorb the psychotropic cannabinoid tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) where it then passes directly into the bloodstream and is delivered to different areas of the body, including the brain.

After inhaling medical cannabis, you can expect the effects to peak within 10 to 20 minutes  and to last for around 2 to 3 hours. Edibles have a very different timeframe: after ingestion, the effects sometimes don’t appear until 1 or 2 hours have passed, with the effects usually peaking at around 4 hours and lasting for up to 12. Depending on its THC content, you may even feel residual effects from a cannabis edible for up to 24 hours.

An edible has delayed effects because the liver must first metabolise ingested cannabis before the psychoactive compounds can enter your bloodstream. When you ingest medical cannabis, the liver processes THC into a more potent compound called 11-hydroxy-THC, which explains why some people experience stronger or different effects when using ingestible cannabis.

Are Cannabis Oils & Capsules Different To Edibles?

Cannabis oils and capsules have essentially the same method of action as a cannabis edible. Cannabis oils must also be processed by the liver to take effect, unless your doctor directs you to take the oil sublingually. Sublingual administration is when you place a medicine under your tongue for it to dissolve into the mucous membranes and enter your bloodstream, bypassing the digestive system.

Taking cannabis oil sublingually will cause a faster onset of effects but a shorter overall duration. If your doctor directs you to swallow the oil instead it will closely resemble edible cannabis in terms of how your body processes it, how long the effects last and how long they take to appear.

Cannabis oils allow for more accurate dosing compared to traditional edibles, as your oil will come with a measured dropper or syringe and the oil’s THC content per mg will be clearly labelled. Alternatively, cannabis capsules come prefilled with specific amounts of cannabidiol (CBD) and/or THC, so you’ll know exactly what you’re consuming.

What Are The Benefits of Cannabis Edibles?

There are several advantages to ingesting medical cannabis rather than inhaling it, but which method of consumption suits you best will depend on your condition and personal preference. One advantage that ingestible forms of cannabis offer is that they are more discreet and easier to consume compared to vaping. Medical cannabis vaporisers can be expensive and may be difficult for some people to operate.

The major reason some prefer ingestible cannabis is because of the longer lasting effects. Some people with chronic pain conditions find that ingested medical cannabis provides longer and more pronounced relief. The same applies to people with sleep issues – the prolonged effects of ingested cannabis might help people fall and stay asleep for longer.

Even if there are few available cannabis edibles at the moment, there are still a wide variety of ingestible cannabis products available for prescription, with many different cannabinoid ratios. Depending on your condition, a CBD dominant product may suit you best, but there are also products with a balanced ratio of CBD and THC and products that are dominant in THC. With ingestible cannabis, a doctor can tailor your treatment to fit your unique needs and circumstances.

What Are The Risks of Using Cannabis Edibles?

Unregulated cannabis edibles pose several risks, but ingestible cannabis prescribed in Australia is generally safe and well-tolerated. If you’re prescribed cannabis oil or capsules, your doctor will give you dosing instructions. When in doubt, especially with ingestible cannabis, it’s always good to ‘start low and go slow.’  

Sometimes people don’t realise that the effects of cannabis edibles can take 1-2 hours  to appear. This can cause people to think their medication isn’t ‘working’ and so they consume more cannabis. This can lead to a cannabis overdose, which, while rarely serious, can be very unpleasant.

If you’re using cannabis oils or capsules, always wait at least two hours to see how your body reacts to the medication. A variety of factors can change how ingestible cannabis affects you, including your metabolism, what you’ve recently eaten, your weight and THC tolerance.

Medical cannabis can also have side effects regardless of whether you inhale or ingest it, but they are rare and usually minor. Possible side effects include dry mouth, nausea, fatigue, vertigo, vomiting, fever, decreased or increased appetite and diarrhoea. In some vulnerable people, THC may cause paranoia, delusions, hallucinations and possibly psychosis. Medical cannabis is not prescribed to people with a history of psychosis for this reason.

Will Cannabis Edibles Ever Be Widely Available In Australia?

It’s hard to tell whether traditional cannabis edibles will eventually become a common prescription option in Australia. Before a medical cannabis product can become available for prescription, it must first be registered with the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG). There are some registered ingestible cannabis products in Australia such as oils and capsules, but cannabis edibles in the form of food or gummies remain unregistered.

Speak with your doctor or a medical cannabis clinic if you’re interested in any form of medical cannabis. If you haven’t had any success with conventional medications you might be eligible for a medical cannabis prescription. If you are eligible, a doctor will assess you and your condition and suggest a medical cannabis product that’s best for you.

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