When most people think of consuming cannabis they think of smoking. Lighting up a joint, packing a glass bowl, milky white clouds pooling into a dimly lit basement after a particularly hefty bong rip are all images conjured up when we think of weed. The singularity of the imagery regarding cannabis consumption is due to prohibition. An illegal market with very limited access to machinery, capital, and formulation technology demanded that flower be the primary cannabis ‘product’ bought and sold. The easiest way to consume the dried and cured plant material is to smoke it and therefore that dominated the cannabis experience and alienated many.
However, as legal cannabis markets evolve so do the product availability and consumption options. Gone are the days of limited choices, instead we are faced with myriad methods that may be overwhelming for some. Let’s break down the various ways we can consume cannabis, their pros and cons and why you might choose one over the other.
Duration of Effects: 2-4 hours
Smoking continues to be an incredibly popular way to consume cannabis. Applying fire to the plant material or concentrate causes a combustion reaction and instant decarboxylation of cannabinoids. The decarboxylation reaction ‘activates’ the cannabinoids and allows them to better bind to endocannabinoid receptors and initiate signaling pathways. The cannabinoid laden smoke is inhaled through the lungs and travels quickly through the bloodstream and into the brain, allowing the user to feel the effects immediately. The intensity of the experience is dependent on dose, length and depth of inhalation and will most likely last for about 2-4 hours. There are pulmonary health risks associated with smoking, such as greater likelihood of bronchitis and other lung infections, however a causal link between smoking cannabis and lung cancer has not yet been established.
Duration of Effects: 2-4 hours
Vaporizing is much like smoking, however a combustion reaction does not occur. Instead, the plant material or concentrate is heated at a lower temperature that still allows for the activation and consumption of cannabinoids and terpenes. Vaporizing cannabis flower is generally regarded as healthier than smoking due to the decreased risk of lung injury and the greater range of compounds present in the vapor (a combustion reaction denatures some of the more volatile compounds, ie terpenes). Consumers may also choose vape pens. The act of vaporizing cannabis extract has become increasingly popular for its feasibility and greater discretion, however there are health risks and lung issues associated with the use of vape pens. The CDC is still exploring exactly why this might be. If you do choose to vaporize cannabis extract conduct a vigorous investigation of the company’s formulation practices, sourcing, and ethics. Lung issues arising from the use of vape pens seem to be associated with contaminants and faulty hardware.
Duration of Effects: 2-4 hours
Dabbing is a term for the consumption of cannabis extracts and concentrates. High heat is applied to the concentrate and consumed through something called a dab rig or other portable device. Dabbing is not for the novice as the experience is often very psychotropic and intense.
Oral Ingestion (aka Edibles)
Onset: 30mins – 3 hours
Duration of Effects: 4-7 hours
Cannabis can be eaten however, it must be prepared first. To make edibles, you must decarboxylate your flower by heating it and then infuse it into a fat or alcohol to extract the compounds and leave behind the plant material. The infusion can then be ingested on its own or used to make chocolates, gummies, candies, etc. In the legal cannabis market, varieties of edibles are extensive and range from infused cheese crisps to miniature almond cakes. Edibles are a great way to consume for those who do not want to put their lungs at risk, however caution is warned! An edible cannabis experience is much stronger compared to the experience of inhaling cannabis. This is because of the way in which our liver processes compounds, specifically THC, creating a large concentration of the metabolite 11-hydroxy-THC that is much more psychotropic than its delta-9 counterpart. Therefore, be conscious of your dose and if you are unsure of where to begin start with a microdose (2.5mg – 5mg THC) and slowly work up or down until you arrive at the dose that works best for you.
Onset: 15 – 30mins
Duration: 2-4 hours
For those who do not want to inhale and also want a quicker onset of effects than edibles can offer – there is mucosal absorption. We have three mucous membranes that we can use to diffuse cannabinoids directly into the bloodstream without going through the lungs. The three membranes exist under the tongue, in the vagina, and in the anus. By applying activated cannabinoids and terpenes to the mucous membranes, the compounds bypass first pass metabolism and absorb directly into the bloodstream, allowing for a much quicker onset of effects. Mucosal absorption can also achieve both localized and holistic therapeutic action. In the case of cannabis infused suppositories, for example, they are most often used to manage symptoms such as menstrual cramps and deliver medicine close to affected areas in cases such as cervical or prostate cancer.
Duration: 1 – 2 hours (re-apply as needed)
For localized symptom relief and therapeutic action, topicals are a great option. From cannabis-infused lotions, oils, balms and salves, topicals can be used to help manage pain, inflammation, soreness, rashes, and many other skin and muscle issues. The most common question that people have when it comes to topicals is ‘will they make me high?’ The answer is no. The skin is an organ with many layers and preoccupying factors for cannabis compounds. Cannabinoids interact with CB1 receptors, vanilloid receptors and additional factors that modulate inflammation before ever making it to the bloodstream. Therefore, cannabinoids don’t have the opportunity to bind to receptors in the brain and initiate a psychotropic effect. For this reason, topicals offer an ideal option for those who want localized therapeutic action without the high.
Gone are the days of limited options when it comes to cannabis consumption. The multitude of available methods allows a more diverse range of demographics to engage with cannabis. It is no longer only smoke-filled imagery. The vision of cannabis consumption now includes working moms consuming edibles, athletes using topicals and high powered professionals puffing on vape pens. When making a choice on how to consume cannabis, think about the experience you want and responsibly experiment with the available options until you find what works best for you.