We Tested the Placebo Effect With Marijuana-Dosed Chocolate

High time for a look at if the controversial concept exists.

Flickr / Cannabis Culture

As you might expect in the broadening category of recreational marijuana retail, there’s a company whose primary branding objective is “marrying stoner culture and luxury categories.” To Whom It May, a Los Angeles-based company that sells such products, offers gourmet-styled weed-laced chocolate to the discerning stoner, with varying levels of potency.

On a recent Friday, five members of the Inverse staff decided it was high time to experiment with the potency, and a little with the placebo effect. Is this stoner-luxe chocolate any good? Does it work? Is it worth the money? (Our box of four chocolates retails for $30; it’s $230 for a “party palette” of chocolates.)

The individually wrapped, sophisticated-looking chocolates were given modern names, and featured Flow Kana, which is “small batch cannabis brand powered by craft farmers.”

Curiously, two of the four varieties — “Vivienne,” a cherry cayenne bourbon, and “Zak,” a smoked almond butter truffle — had 0 milligrams of Flow Kana.

The other two edibles were dosed with weed: “Myra,” a hazelnut brandy bonbon clocking in at 2.5 mg of weed, and “Ralph,” a hazelnut butter truffle containing 5 mg of pot. (Five mg is enough to experience a mild psychoactive high.)

Courtesy To Whom It May

Four staffers volunteered. We conducted a double-blind experiment, ensuring anonymity.

And thus, the experiment began, at 7:07 p.m. The pre-existing conditions of the four staffers were as such: all had had lunch around noon, and — due to a birthday party of a colleague — all had had exactly one glass of Prosecco an hour beforehand. All experimenters had previous experience with both smoking pot and consuming edibles.

Here’s how they felt at 8:07 p.m. (We’re going to refer to the staffers by their weed treat).

Vivienne — one of the placebos — reported feeling dehydrated after taking her cherry cayenne bourbon chocolate. She tried to discern if there was anything in the chocolate’s flavor or texture that might indicate it was one of the weed-laced ones, and figured that the heavy cherry flavor might be a gauche attempt to mask any bitter flavors of weed. Within a couple minutes, Vivienne reported feeling her fingers tingling and some pressure behind her eyes. “I was also getting giggly and burping,” she said. “I’m sure that was some lingering Prosecco in my system.” But Vivienne wasn’t sure — while she was told that there was no way she could feel the effects of weed within a couple minutes, she started feeling slightly paranoid. “People are whispering,” she reported. “Do I have the 5 (mg)? Is this the paranoia setting in?”

Zak — the other placebo — also reported sort of feeling confused, at least at first. “In the first few minutes, I felt as though I may have ingested some small amount of marijuana,” he admitted. “I had consumed two beers [after the Prosecco] and wasn’t able to fluidly converse with [a friend] when I met up with him after we sampled the possibly weed chocolates.”

The Placebo Effect, Explained

The placebo effect has long been a controversial concept in scientific studies. Traditionally, they have been used in primarily medical settings to ensure the integrity of the experiment — that the effects of a drug were true and could be compared to that of a subject who was not part of the experiment. But sugar pills, sham experiments, and psychological trauma from misleading information have raised concerns about whether the placebo effect is not only ethically questionable but also scientifically unviable.

The Placebo Effect With Marijuana

With marijuana, however, the research isn’t clear. Part of that problem is that government-sponsored studies of weed are few and far between and are way weaker than what’s actually out there. A prescription pill, Marinol, mimics the effects of marijuana for those seeking relief without actually smoking pot and has seen some conflicting results. In fact, in a study looking to see if anxiety was eased with pot, results indicated the placebo definitely did not work; another focusing on children with epilepsy indicated parents were overestimating the positive effects of marijuana on their kids.

Is marijuana subject to the placebo effect?

Flickr / katherine_hitt

Vivienne and Zak, for their initial questioning of their consumption of weed, reacted the opposite to Ralph. Convinced he had been given a placebo, Ralph continued working for another half hour. By the time he left around 7:45, he felt nothing. “I didn’t feel wobbly, I didn’t feel woozy at all,” he said. After a long day at work, Ralph “figured I’d go home and watch a movie and eat ice cream and call it a night.”

Myra, however, was convinced she had had pot “based on crowd reactions” (the crowd being two other onlookers who were fervently whispering as the experiment took place). Myra was also convinced that Zak had gotten a sample. Within a few minutes of taking weed, Myra was exhibiting signs of distrust and mild paranoia. Within half an hour, Myra — who also stayed to work for a bit longer — noticed her thoughts drifting.

Marijuana is Unpredictable

This informal experiment highlights a basic fact about marijuana: Unlike alcohol, it is nearly impossible to predict its effects on the individual. Myra and Ralph are a great example of this. Ralph is 5’ 2” and didn’t feel the effects of pot for a while, and even then, the effects were not as disorienting as previous experiences — despite having the heaviest dose. Myra, who stands 6’1”, felt effects within a half hour.

The experiment highlights the well-documented difficulties around legalization and creating a breathalyzer to measure weed intoxication; the effects of THC, the primary component of pot, are practically impossible to measure.

Both placebo-receiving staffers realized they were not high after a half-hour or so. That left Myra and Ralph. Around the hour and a half mark, Myra was solidly high: She was on a bench outside a friend’s apartment and “felt a heaviness in [my] chest, muscles slowing;” a few minutes after, she reported feeling energetic and mildly euphoric. She correctly assumed she’d had the 2.5 mg dose.

Ralph had a delayed reaction. He engaged in an energetic conversation with a friend over text about a theory that suddenly felt very important: Fax machines were actually the original text messaging! Ralph debated this for a half hour, and then experienced an intense hunger, going to his local taqueria and ordering six steak tacos instead of his usual order of three chorizo tacos.

That’s when it hit Ralph: He was very definitely high. Even then, though, he figured he had the lower dose of marijuana — despite signs indicating he was pretty stoned.

So what did we ultimately learn? For one thing, the placebo effect — for all its controversy — sort of exists, at least in an informal weed-laced chocolate experiment. Second, with the advent of marijuana legalization, we’re reminded again that it’s nearly impossible to figure out how or when a person is intoxicated. And finally, everyone’s got a different way they handle their weed consumption. For some, it’s chilling on a bench. For others, it’s consuming an inordinate amount of tacos.

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