The Science of Cannabis Consumption Methods
How You Consume Cannabis Directly Impacts The Experience
Author: Samantha M., Pe Marketing Lead
If you have some experience consuming cannabis through several different consumption methods (such as smoking, vaporizing, edibles, etc.), you’ve probably noticed that the final effects are not all the same. Have you ever wondered why smoking a cannabis strain and then eating an edible made with that very same strain produces such markedly different results?
While there is still much to be learned about cannabis, there has been some research into the interesting science behind these divergent experiences. We’ll take a look at some of the factors that impact cannabis activation time, strength of effects, and duration of experience across the different consumption methods in this article.
Flower & Extract Consumption - How You Inhale Matters
Let’s begin with the most classic method for consuming cannabis - inhalation. Inhalation consumption can be broken down into two main categories: smoking and vaporizing. Smoking involves lighting the cannabis flower on fire and inhaling the resulting smoke through a rolled joint, glass pipe, or other smoking apparatus, while vaporizing involves heating the flower or extracted oil without reaching the point of burning or combustion, which produces a vapor of active compounds rather than a thick smoke. Popular vaporizing devices include portable vaporizer pens, larger at-home vaporizing machines, and dabbing concentrates, which is a form of flash vaporization. While smoking and vaporizing may seem near-identical to the new user, the effects that these consumption methods produce are actually quite different. We’ll take a deeper look at each of these inhalation methods to explore how they might impact your cannabis experiences.
Smoking is usually the first consumption method that new cannabis users will try, and this is actually a fairly beneficial way to begin your cannabis experimentations if you are a new user yourself. This is because smoking provides a rapid onset of effects (effects are usually felt within 5-10 minutes, and may be immediate in some cases), so new users usually won’t have to wait long before they begin feeling the effects, and can determine whether or not they enjoy the dosage taken and outcome.
When cannabis is smoked, the non-active acidic THC-A molecule in the flower is decarboxylated, or chemically changed, by the fire or combustion source to create Delta-9-THC, the psychoactive form of THC that most people are referencing when they discuss “THC” in regards to cannabis effects. You are then able to inhale this “activated” THC molecule with the smoke from the flower, allowing the Delta-9-THC to penetrate the bloodstream and reach the endocannabinoid receptors in your brain and body, which is what produces noticeable cannabis effects in your cognition and the feeling of your body (we’ll give a more in-depth overview of the Endocannabinoid System of your body in an upcoming article!). Delta-9-THC produces intoxicating feelings quickly on inhalation and as it is metabolized, which is why the onset of effects is relatively rapid when smoking cannabis.
As the THC is metabolized in the blood stream, Delta-9-THC is chemically changed once again into 11-Hydroxy-THC, the metabolite of THC that produces strong cannabis effects which sometimes border on psychedelic experiences. 11-Hydroxy-THC is the form of THC responsible for the unique and powerful effects of edibles, which we’ll discuss in more detail in the next section, but a small percentage of 11-Hydroxy-THC is also produced by smoking and vaporizing cannabis products, leading to a “peak” high experience that usually occurs approximately 15-20 minutes after inhaling cannabis. Once the effects peak of THC metabolism is reached, cannabis effects begin to taper off until you return to baseline, usually within 30-90 minutes. This duration of effects is relatively short compared to other consumption methods such as edibles, but is ideal for new users or when your schedule dictates a short-to-mid term experience session.
Vaporizing cannabis is quite similar to smoking in terms of the metabolic processes that THC undergoes in the bloodstream after inhalation - but the different approach to decarboxylation produces a very different final cannabis “high”. The biggest difference between smoking and vaporizing is that the cannabis product (either extracts or very finely-ground plant matter) does not undergo combustion during the decarboxylation process, so no smoke is produced. Instead a fine vapor of active compounds is delivered to the lungs, where they are distributed to the bloodstream just as quickly as with smoking.
One key advantage that a non-combustion decarb process like vaporizing has over smoking is the reduction in THC pyrolysis, or the degrading of THC by fire - meaning that less THC is lost in the heating process, making vaporizing a more efficient THC-delivery system than smoking. This means that if you were to smoke and vaporize the exact same cannabis product in the exact same dose, you would get more THC into your bloodstream after consuming via vaporizing, which can translate to slightly stronger effects that may have a slightly quicker onset time than smoking due to the elevated THC concentration in the circulating blood. In fact, this was scientifically tested in a 2018 study by Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and confirmed to be the case for most participants of the study.
Now that we’ve covered the effects of cannabis inhalation, let’s take a look at the other side of cannabis consumption - ingestion!
Edibles Consumption - Not All Ingestion is Created Equal
Ingesting cannabis in the form of infused food or beverage products has been popular with many cultures for centuries. Today, “edibles” and “ingestibles” take the form of candies, baked goods, chips, popcorn, beverage shots, tinctures - if you can imagine it, producers can find a way to infuse it with cannabis! These products are particularly handy for those who can’t smoke or choose not to for health reasons. Regardless of which edible/ingestible product you choose, the effects that you will experience will be vastly different from the effects of smoking or vaporizing cannabis due to the unique ways that ingested cannabis compounds interact with our bodies. Beyond that, exactly how you ingest can have a noticeable impact on your experience onset time, strength, and duration as well. Let’s take a look at the two main forms of cannabis ingestion - oral consumption and sublingual absorption.
Orally Ingesting Cannabis Products
When most people think of edibles, they may imagine that one brownie their friend made in college that got them waaaay too high and made them not want to explore cannabis for a while. This experience was very widespread in the pre-legalization days, when edibles could not be tested for potency or dosing guidance. Luckily, we now have a legal cannabis market in Oregon and other states that requires stringent testing and labeling, allowing consumers to get more repeatable and predictable experiences from edibles than ever before. We now also understand more of the science behind why edibles are so potent in the first place, helping consumers make educated decisions about their dosing needs.
One of the main reasons that edibles typically produce much stronger effects than smoking or vaporizing is the increase in production of 11-Hydroxy-THC when the Delta-9-THC is metabolized in the liver. Liver metabolism is much more effective at breaking Delta-9-THC into 11-Hydroxy-THC than the metabolic processes that occur in the bloodstream; so although some 11-Hydroxy-THC is produced after inhalation, it is nowhere near as much as with cannabis edibles.
While the effects of edibles are generally stronger than inhalation, the onset time of effects is delayed, typically in the range of 20 minutes to an hour, but sometimes taking as long as 2 and a half hours for effects to be felt. It’s extremely important to keep this delayed activation time in mind when consuming edibles, as taking additional doses before you feel the effects of your first dose can very easily lead to a THC “overdose” situation. Although THC overdose is not deadly and does not produce any long-term negative effects, it is extremely uncomfortable to experience and can be scary for new users, so it’s always best to give edibles plenty of time to go into complete effect before taking additional doses.
Finally, the extended metabolic digestion of cannabis edibles typically produces cannabis high experiences with a much longer duration cycle than other consumption methods. The experience produced by an edible typically lasts 2-4 hours, but may fall anywhere between an hour to 8-12 hours in some rare cases, based on the individual’s metabolic rate and many other contributing factors. For these reasons, edibles may not be the best choice for those completely new to cannabis, and it’s always very important to start with low doses and progress slowly in your experimentations when you do start trying edibles or new types of edibles for the first time.
Sublingual (Under The Tongue) Ingestion of Cannabis Products
Sublingual absorption or ingestion is a fancy way of describing the process of placing a cannabis product under the tongue to allow the active cannabis compounds to penetrate the thin mucus membranes of the mouth, for rapid absorption into the bloodstream. Popular products for sublingual consumption include tinctures, oral sprays, mints, and soft, easily-melted edibles like chocolate or our cannabis caramels.
This allows for a much more rapid effects onset than with orally ingested edibles, typically in the range of 10-15 minutes. However, because the cannabinoids are bypassing the liver metabolism and going straight into the bloodstream, less 11-Hydroxy-THC will be formed than with edibles, leading to effects with a similar strength and duration to vaporizing.
In this way, sublingually ingested edibles become something like hybrids between ingestion and inhalation - providing cannabis benefits without lung involvement, but with experiences that are more similar to inhalation than ingestion in terms of their activation time, strength of effects, and duration. For this reason, sublingual ingestion makes a great first step into the realm of edibles, as you’re usually not signing up for stronger or longer-lasting effects than you’re prepared to endure as a new user.
Each of the different consumption methods has unique features that can make them more or less ideal for an individual user’s preferences - in fact, your preferred cannabis consumption method will likely depend largely on the setting in which you will be consuming cannabis, who you will be with, and what type of effects you’re looking to get out of that particular experience. The best way to determine your cannabis consumption preferences is always through careful experimentation with a variety of products in comfortable settings.
One important class of cannabis products that we did not touch on here is topicals - these are ointments, creams, or balms applied to the skin for the purposes of medicinal treatment of a wide variety of ailments, including chronic pain, inflammation, arthritis, skin dryness, etc. These products are non-psychoactive, meaning that they will not produce “high” experiences with noticeable cognitive effects, because any THC in topicals cannot penetrate the skin and make its way into the bloodstream to the brain. Determining duration and strength of medicinal effects for topicals is quite difficult, but the good news is that there is nothing to “overdose” on in topicals, so they can typically be applied and re-applied as needed to get the medicinal effects the user needs without concern for negative side-effects or monitoring your “dose”.
However, with every other consumption method besides topical application, dosing is the first and foremost consideration that you should have when choosing a cannabis product or consumption method. In all cases for inhalation and ingestion of cannabis, starting low and going slow on your experimentations is the best practice to ensure that you have positive cannabis experiences that you want to repeat in the future.