New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd got experienced in Denver with some edible legal marijuana. It didn't go well. She wrote that she suffered an all-night panic attack after "nibbling" on some infused chocolate. 

There's a lesson to be learned from her self-described bad trip. She and other cannabis newbies would do better sticking to the old-fashioned method when consuming for the first time: smoking it.

When we inhale marijuana, the intoxicating impact is nearly instant. The lungs extract THC (along with more than 80 other cannabinoids) from the smoke then it goes into the bloodstream and binds with our body's built-in cannabinoid receptors. One or two puffs and a consumer will start to feel the effects. Take a few more puffs and the effects increase. Stop smoking for an hour or two and it quickly wears off.

When we eat marijuana, the process is quite different. During digestion the cannabinoids are metabolized in the liver, which can take an hour or more. The body also begins to produce natural, endogenous cannabinoids, essentially giving the consumer a double dose. When the effects eventually begin to set in, they are often more intoxicating than smoking or vaporizing whole-plant material. Edible cannabis intoxication also lasts longer, eight hours or more.

Cannabis-infused candies, chocolates and other treats, along with simple tinctures, have been around for hundreds of years. They have long been used by medical marijuana patients. Rather than smoking every hour throughout the day, they find greater, sustained relief with the edible method. Moreover when these patients need relief overnight (they can't smoke in their sleep), an edible is the best medicine.

Some recreational consumers also truly enjoy the more intense sensations ... for those who can hold their truffles.

Dowd's chocolate freak-out was rare but not unique. In 2007 Cpl. Edward Sanchez of the Dearborn Michigan Police Department stole some of the devil's lettuce out of the evidence locker at work. He went home and baked a pan of pot brownies with his wife. The two happily munched down the lot. Then Sanchez made a call to 9-1-1, claiming to be having an 'overdose" and begging for an ambulance to rush to the couple's aid. Officer Sanchez told the (very smart) dispatcher that time was going by "really, really, really, really, slow" and he was convinced they were "dying."

Perhaps most amazing: No charges were filed against Sanchez for the theft and he was allowed to resign.

Cannabis has a unique intoxicating effect. It is a mild stimulant and is classified in science as the lowest level of hallucinogen. The same dose of the same strain can also have a varying impact on different individuals. Simply smoking marijuana is usually not enough to bring on a psychedelic high. Yet the body's production of in-house cannabinoids when eating it can certainly get more groovy.

Still, it is the general psychological state of the consumer that tends to dictate whether they fall over laughing at SpongeBob or get extremely paranoid and afraid of room service.

The Colorado legislature recently passed new laws to limit the amounts of cannabis concentrates and edibles sold in the legal market stores. Regulators are also working on more-refined warnings on the labels of marijuana edibles. But that seems a bit extreme.

A public-awareness campaign by the state and the industry seems more appropriate. Something like "Just Smoke It" would suffice.

It is important to note that the most commonly used legal intoxicant in America, alcohol, won't just make newbies think they are dying ... booze actually kills. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) more than 1,800 college-age Americans die every year from drinking too much alcohol.

Some more cold, hard facts about beer, wine and liquor:

  • Assault: More than 690,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are assaulted each year by another student who has been drinking.

  • Sexual Abuse: More than 97,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.

  • Injury: 599,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 receive unintentional injuries while under the influence of alcohol.

Perhaps politicians should require Coors Light, Jack Daniel's, Jose Cuervo and every bar in the country to carry clear labels with those statistics.

Maureen Dowd was able to sleep off her bad edible high and write a column about it. Marijuana is safer than alcohol and other drugs because it is not lethal on its own.

The worst thing that can happen with weed is running afoul of the law and getting caught up in the criminal justice system by getting arrested. That is something Dowd never risked because Colorado voters had the courage to eliminate the most damaging possible impact of cannabis: criminal prosecution.

Again, for adults looking to consume for the first time, I suggest the age-old encounter with a hand-rolled marijuana joint, a few puffs at a time. There are complex flavors (citrus, lavender, spice) and fragrances (fresh-cut grass, a bit of skunk, oak casks). It is always best with friends (perhaps more knowledgeable consumers) and not alone. Put the joint down when you sense the high, there is no need to smoke the whole thing.

Share some laughter, good conversation, some music and maybe some insight. Enjoy it as many millions of Americans have for generations. If everyone had a "Dowd" experience with marijuana, then no one would use it at all.

It is not the cannabis plant that is so popular, but the positive sensations it can generate - as long as you are not in handcuffs.

Chris Goldstein is on the board of directors at PhillyNORML and is currently serving two years of federal probation for possessing a single marijuana joint on federal land.