Cannabis Consumption Methods: Part 1 - Inhalation
Cannabis Consumption Methods: Smoke, vape, ingest, or apply – how do I know which way I should take in my medicine?
Gloria Lynne Smith, RN-BC, BSN
Part 1: Inhalation
Today’s medications often come from a pharmacy, and are usually dispensed in the form they are supposed to be taken. If a medicine is intended to be inhaled, it comes in the form of an inhaler. If you are confused about how to take your medicine, the pharmacist is available to answer your questions. Medical marijuana is prescribed by a doctor, and dispensed by “Budtenders”, who may or may not have the information the patient needs. It’s important for us to walk in to the dispensary with the knowledge necessary to use safely and effectively.
Medical marijuana is offered in many different forms of consumption, which can be confusing even to the expert user. If you know about how the plant turns in to medicine, that’s the start of the informed decisions. You will now take your medicine home and get it in to your body somehow. Don’t panic - all we have to do is learn a little bit on how it transforms from plant to medicine.
Heating is necessary
Finding a marijuana plant in the middle of the woods wouldn’t get you high, unless maybe you lit it on fire (please don’t). The plant needs help to be converted in to something useful for our bodies, including trimming, drying, and heating. Raw cannabis produces a wide variety of cannabinoids, which are compounds useful for a variety of health and wellness reasons. The most recognized cannabinoid is tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which exists in the body as tetrahydrocannabolic acid, THCA. You may also recognize cannabidiol, or CBD. Cannabinoids exist in their raw state until they are decarboxylated. When exposed to heat over time, the chemical structure of the cannabinoid is altered and it loses a carboxyl group, converting the cannabinoids to useable forms. Decarboxylation will allow THC to bind to receptors in your body, therefore making it usable for us.
Get the temperature right
Each cannabinoid has its own particular temperature that it likes to combust at, and not all will be heated to their ideal temperature, and not a degree more. Admittedly, it can be quite complicated to even begin to figure out what temperature range you want and how to get your cannabis there without scorch. So how do we get the most out of our product? We carefully heat, using the right tools and some knowledge.
Using a lighter can produce temperatures upwards of 1000 degrees Celcius, or more than 1800 degrees Fahrenheit. At those extremely high temperatures, it’s likely that much of the cannabinoids and terpenes will be scorched and unusable. Vaporization, however, heats cannabis to about 180 – 230 degrees Celcius, which is considerably less than the open-flame lighter. Some vaporization products offer strict control over the burn temperature. This allows the user to take extra precaution as to not waste any product.
Heat over time
“Low and slow” is a phrase we use often when talking about marijuana to patients. Most commonly, we use it to discuss how to start dosing, because new users need to be careful not to dose too high in the beginning. “Low and slow” also applies to heating the plant for consumption. Each cannabinoid converts at a specific time and temperature, so heating low over time is preferred to get the most usable product. Imagine you’re given a high-quality piece of beef – preferably, you’d cook it low and slow to get the most flavor out of the meat, cooking each individual component at its own specific temperature.
Continual burning of already scorched product, whether we’re talking marijuana flower or quality steaks, will create a burnt taste. It seems obvious, but smoking is more enjoyable when you remove burnt product as you go. When smoking a joint, the ash falls away as you smoke. This prevents reburn of burned product. If you’re careful, the only way you’re reburning flower is if you’re relighting a previously extinguished joint. In a bowl, burnt product can be easily scraped out with a tool or even a toothpick, even as the user is actively smoking. If we can’t control the amount of heat applied, we can at least remove old, burned flower, to improve the experience.
Combustion versus vaporization
Most people know marijuana in the inhaled form. Smoking marijuana doesn’t require much in the way of tools, so inhalation is also the most accessible. Heating cannabis flower or flower product (like hash or resin) to certain temperatures will cause combustion. This converts the cannabinoids to a usable form, and releases the them to be inhaled and absorbed through the bloodstream via the lungs. Anything that is burned is inhaled, including the paper to roll a joint, or any additives, for example. Don’t forget – even the butane from your lighter is coming through in your smoke, so be aware of what you’re using and what’s going in to your body.
The biggest reason why combustion is less than ideal is because of its byproducts – namely tar, which is a carcinogen.
Vaporization heats cannabis oil with heated air to just below the point of combustion, and stops the heating process before temperatures get too high (no pun intended). The chemical process involved with turning a liquid into a vapor is complex, but very controllable with current technology. The cannabis oil used for vaping is prepared to delay decarboxylation until use. Vape cartridges contain concentrates that are made without heat, so when you heat the oil through vaporizing, you are decarboxylating and immediately using the THC, CBD, and all of the other cannabinoids via the steam produced from vaporization.
How fast do you need it?
Choosing a consumption method starts with deciding how quickly do you need the product, and how long do you want it to last? Burning and inhaling cannabis is one of the quickest ways to access its benefits. When inhaled, THC travels to the lung where it can quickly enter the bloodstream and cross the blood-brain barrier. Effects from inhaled THC will peak around 6-10 minutes after inhalation (Chayasirisobhon, 2020). Similarly, products that are absorbed on the skin or under the tongue cross in to the blood stream quickly, but more on that in Cannabis Consumption Methods, Part 2. Ingesting cannabis is one of the slowest usage methods, but often lasts the longest. Figuring out what you want from your medicine or your session will help guide you in picking your tools. Tune in to Part 2 for more on ingestion and application.
Chayasirisobhon S. Mechanisms of action and pharmacokinetics of cannabis. Perm J 2020;25:19.200. DOI: 10.7812/TPP/19.200