Onset & Duration - Keys to Gauging Cannabis Experiences
Let’s envision a scenario that will likely sound familiar - a new cannabis enthusiast is trying an unfamiliar edible for the first time. They eat a “dose”, whatever that may be, and feel no effects. So they eat another dose soon after - suddenly, the effects set in, and they’re way too strong. They’ve accidentally over-consumed THC because the effects were delayed - the first dose was plenty strong enough to induce the effects desired, but because the dose hadn’t kicked in yet, they’ve now double-dosed and do not enjoy the resulting experience.
Let’s examine another scenario - a new cannabis consumer takes a healthy dose of an edible that gets them pleasantly high for several hours. They’re enjoying that experience, but then realize that more time has passed than they expected, and they have a dinner to attend with extended family (or worse - they have to go to work!). They don’t want to be high for this event, but the effects of the edible dose continue to hold strong as the hours drag on, leaving them in an uncomfortable situation that taints the experience of cannabis consumption.
If you have some history with cannabis, it’s likely that you or a friend have experienced some version of one or both of these scenarios. Understanding when you’ll feel the first cannabis effects, when effects should peak, and how long the complete curve of effects will last is critical to having a positive cannabis experience that you want to repeat. The onset of effects and their total duration change drastically between the common consumption methods of smoking, vaporizing, edible consumption, tincture absorption, and so on, so you need to understand these metrics in order to accurately predict what experience your cannabis product will provide, and for how long.
While we will touch briefly on all the most popular cannabis consumption methods, we’ll focus mostly on edibles for this article - not only because they are our area of expertise here at Periodic edibles, but also because they can be the most unpredictable when it comes to onset & duration of effects. This can cause a lot of anxiety in new cannabis consumers or when trying an unfamiliar edible product, so we want to empower you to better understand the definitions and influences of these important topics. In addition to guidance on typical onset/duration for the main cannabis consumption methods, we’ll also elucidate some outside influences that can impact these metrics, and how to avoid accidental mishaps as a result of inaccurately predicting the onset and duration of your cannabis experience.
Understanding “Onset” and “Duration” of Cannabis Effects
To begin our exploration of the metrics of gauging cannabis experience, let’s get the basic definitions for these terms nailed down. When we say “Onset” of effects, we’re referring to the length of time that passes from cannabis consumption to the first feelings of cannabis effects. This is how long it takes the product to “kick in”, and an estimate of this time period should be listed on product packaging as “activation time” in legal cannabis markets. If you’re wondering “how long does it take this edible to work?”, check the packaging and see what the manufacturer indicates - we’ll also give you some general guidance on this in a moment.
It’s important to note that the onset of effects is not always the same as the peak of effects. Cannabis effects are typically perceived as a front-heavy bell curve of strength - coming on decently strong, often swelling even stronger to their peak, and then gradually relaxing back toward baseline feelings as felt before consumption. This seems especially true in edible consumption, where the liver metabolism of THC creates higher levels of the more psychoactive THC by-product, called 11-Hydroxy-THC. This is why some people experience strong, near-psychedelic effects from edibles that are much stronger than the effects they feel from smoking, where less 11-Hydroxy-THC is produced during the bloodstream metabolism of THC.
How the effects of cannabis change as the experience progresses can be monitored and timed to give us an estimate of duration for that cannabis consumption experience. A cannabis experience’s “Duration” is the total length of time effects will be felt, from first onset of noticeable changes in cognition or feelings to the final return to baseline sobriety level. The bell curve of peaks and valleys of total effects experienced, as we described above, will plot out this overall duration timeline, allowing you to better predict when you’ll feel effects next time you consume, how long those effects should last, and where along the bell curve you’ll likely reach peak effects. Duration can also be quite dose dependent, especially if a consumer is gradually re-dosing at frequent intervals, as this will extend the length and peaks of effects felt over a much longer duration of total experience.
As we’ve mentioned, and you can see from the infographic at the top of this article (click here to download a copy for future reference), the way in which you consume your cannabis has a direct influence on the length of time it will take for effects to be felt and how long they’ll hang around. The most common consumption method, smoking or vaporizing, has the quickest onset - usually within 10 minutes, and sometimes near-immediately. This consumption method typically also provides the strongest primary THC experiences (excluding the extra-psychoactive effects of 11-Hydroxy-THC that can often bump edible experiences to the next level) - however, what smoking and vaporizing pack in onset time quickness and peak effects strength, they lack in length of duration. Smoking/vaping provide the shortest duration of experience, usually complete within 80 minutes, which can lead to a more frequent need to re-dose to maintain an extended pleasant experience.
Edibles are nearly the exact opposite of smoking/vaping when it comes to onset and duration of effects, with a long activation time before effects are felt, but a much longer duration of experience as well. As we mentioned in our first cautionary scenario, the effects of edibles take quite some time to set in, usually at least 20 minutes and often as much as 2 hours. This delayed onset has led many to accidentally overconsume edible THC by mistakenly believing that their dose wasn’t strong, when it simply hadn’t set in yet. Edible duration is also the longest in the cannabis world and is particularly dose-dependent - it’s not unusual for edible cannabis experiences to last 2 hours or more, and on especially high doses of edible THC, some consumers report feeling high for upwards of 8-12 hours. Some horror stories of exceptionally gargantuan edible doses (which are never recommended) include effects that lasted for several days or even most of a week - this is why careful THC dosing is absolutely critical to a pleasant, manageable cannabis experience. If you do find yourself in the grips of a THC overconsumption incident like this, there are several tactics that you can use to help yourself feel better - but the best medicine against the negative feelings of THC overconsumption is always careful prevention.
Right in the middle of edibles & smoking/vaporizing in the onset and duration comparison is the class of cannabis products that have most quickly risen to prominence in legal cannabis markets - the tinctures, or any cannabis product that is consumed through sublingual absorption. Sublingual absorption is the act of holding a product under your tongue to dissolve in your mouth and be absorbed through the mucus membranes & glands. The active compounds then penetrate the bloodstream directly and travel to the brain without bypassing the liver - giving sublingual products a faster onset than edibles. However, these sublingual compounds do not reach the brain as quickly as the compounds that enter our bloodstream through the lungs when smoking or vaporizing, so the onset of sublingual effects is slightly more delayed than the effects of smoking - usually in the 10-20 minute range. From that point on, the duration of effects for sublingual products is only slightly longer than the effects of smoking or vaporizing, typically complete within 90-120 minutes. We also have an FAQ video on the different Cannabis Consumption Methods and how they impact the initial onset and complete duration of your cannabis experience if you’d like a quick and shareable guide on what to expect from smoking vs edibles vs tinctures.
Seasoned cannabis consumers will also testify that the infusion method used to create an edible or tincture, or the extraction method used to isolate an extract, can have a direct influence on the onset, duration, and peak strength of cannabis products. Full Spectrum vs Distillate vs Isolate infusions all produce quite different results on consumption, thanks to the impact of the “Entourage Effect”, or the combined actions of all the active compounds contained within them working together to produce a greater effect. We’ll discuss this phenomenon more in the next section.
If you’re interested in the exact science of how THC is metabolized differently in your body depending on your consumption method, infusion/extraction method, and other important factors, we did a deep-dive on this topic with cannabis educator & consultant Emma Chasen on our cannabis science and business podcast, Periodic effects. As Emma points out, our body’s metabolism of cannabinoids and terpenes is incredibly unique, and varies greatly from person to person - so you may feel effects from a tincture sooner than you feel effects from smoking, or your friend may feel edible effects in 20 minutes when it take your edible 2 hours to kick in. This individual uniqueness is one of the main factors that impacts your personal trends in effects onset and duration across consumption methods. Let’s take a look at some other factors that can have discreet but significant impacts on our cannabis experience metrics, which should be considered when trying to accurately predict the course of your next cannabis experience.
Hidden Factors that can Impact Effect Onset and Duration
Beyond the obvious impacts of cannabis consumption method and THC dose on the curve of cannabis effects, there are several less-distinct factors that can subtly influence the onset and duration of your cannabis experience.
Terpenes in your cannabis product may play a part in how you experience cannabis beyond driving the nuanced effects of “relaxed” vs “stimulated” or otherwise. Certain terpenes can impact how THC and other cannabinoids bind to our Endocannabinoid System receptors, which can affect not only the strength of the experience, but also the perceived onset and duration of effects as well. B-Caryophyllene - for example - is able to disrupt the binding of THC to our CB1 receptors, reducing the amount of THC-related intoxication we feel and significantly reducing effect duration. Just the presence of terpenes can cause the overall strength and length of effects to be more well-rounded, which can help you savor the experience.
Speaking of our Endocannabinoid System, your unique ECS “tone”, or baseline endocannabinoid levels, can determine how quickly you feel effects from cannabis, and how long they progress. If you’re not familiar with the human Endocannabinoid System and how the active compounds in cannabis interact with our bodies, be sure to read our quick “ECS 101” intro article to get up to speed there. But to simplify, the basis of your ECS tone’s impact on cannabinoid effects is best thought of like the gas tank in your car - if you already have a bit of gas in there (your body’s natural endocannabinoids like Anandamide and 2-AG) it will take less gas from this gas station (the cannabis-based phytocannabinoids like THC and CBD) to get you up to the “full” line you’re aiming for, and you’ll have more time before you run out of gas again. A popular theory among cannabis enthusiasts who are interested in the ECS is that many people don’t get a high experience from their first cannabis consumption (or even first couple consumptions) because their body’s natural production of cannabinoids is so low, it takes a massive amount of phytocannabinoids from cannabis to get them to the threshold for feeling the euphoric effects. While science has not yet validated or explored this theory, it will be interesting to see if it hold any truth as more scientific research is devoted to the ECS.
As we mentioned earlier, your personal THC tolerance, as well as the speed and strength of your body’s metabolism, can significantly impact the onset, duration, and strength of cannabis effects. This is particularly true in edibles - some consumers feel no effects from edible cannabis at standard psychoactive doses due to the strength of the liver’s filtration of THC from the blood before it can reach their brain. Onset and duration of effects can also be greatly impacted by our body’s health state at that moment - dehydration impacts blood flow, which can slow circulation and cause a delay in THC reaching the brain, while also making your water-starved brain more susceptible to the effects of foreign substances. How much you’ve had to eat that day is also important, especially with edibles, which can hit sooner and stronger if taken on an empty stomach, but can also be better processed during digestion if eaten along with a fatty food. It’s important to conduct several experiments with cannabis products to find out how your body interacts with various THC doses and product types in different settings before making assumptions about a whole product class based on one consumption event.
Onset/Duration Considerations to Ensure a Great Experience
So now that you understand exactly what onset and duration mean in relation to cannabis, and what factors can impact when you feel effects, how do you use that knowledge to guide your cannabis experiences?
The first step is to choose your consumption method carefully. Think about what type of effects you want, how quickly you want those effects to take hold after you consume, and how long you want your total experience to last overall. Choose a product that fits these needs and your schedule of other commitments for the day - if you have a big commitment in 4 hours that you need to be clear-headed for, don’t risk a drawn-out edible experience that could land you in hot water. If you want to feel effects the entire time you visit a museum, don’t invest in a short-lived dose product that requires frequent re-dosing like a vape pen. Really consider all your wants and needs for this cannabis consumption to set yourself up for the most successful session possible.
It’s also important to get to know your individual body chemistry - experiment carefully to learn your own standard effects onset window for various consumption methods, and pay attention to the relationship between THC dosing and experience duration that you notice for edibles and tinctures in particular. This can help you gauge your typical cannabinoid sensitivity, and over time you can get an average of your experiences to guide you on how long smoking vs edibles take for you to feel them, and how long before you typically return to baseline sobriety.
Finally, always consider your setting and personal feelings for the day to decide what type of experience you really need then- where is your mindset, and are you open to the cannabis experience or feeling resistance? Are you among friends, or are you in a strange place for the first time? How much have you had to eat and drink today? These basic checks on where your body is at in the moment can inform you on whether or not it is a good time and place to consume, and what the appropriate onset and duration of experience will be for that situation so that you can choose the right consumption method.
We hope that these insights on how to gauge cannabis effects have empowered you to take charge of your individual cannabis journeys. Again, if you’re interested in learning more about how cannabis works together with our bodies to support our health in many ways, check out our write-up on the Human Endocannabinoid System. If you’re nervous about experimenting with cannabis for the first time, especially edibles, read our blog post on preventing and combatting the negative side effects of THC overconsumption.
*DISCLAIMER: These opinion pieces are personal experiences of the individual authors, and are not medical recommendations, medical claims, or usage recommendations from the company. Our products are not approved by the FDA to treat, cure or prevent any diseases. Periodic edibles supports responsible cannabis use in accordance with all local laws.