Entering the medical cannabis world can be a bit daunting for some. Between different strains, terpenes, and cannabinoids, the full scope of marijuana’s complexities extends further than some newbies are ready to digest. That being said, many patients begin their medical cannabis journey without fully grasping the differences between the various methods of administration. This is critical knowledge for any cannabis user who wants to accurately determine proper dosage, as there’s no surefire way to translate ‘tolerance’ from smoking to edibles or vice versa. Edibles notoriously provide longer (and some say stronger) effects than smoking or vaporizing, but why? We take a brief look at the science behind smoking and eating cannabis.


Smoking is still, though not by much, the most common way in which patients consume their medicine. But how exactly do the cannabinoids (compounds of medicinal value in cannabis) make it from the herb in your hand to the receptors in your brain? It starts with decarboxylating your medicine—this involves heating your flower or oil in order to convert the non-psychoactive THCA into very psychoactive THC.


This is achieved through simple use of a lighter or vaporizing apparatus. Once inhaled, the THC, as well as a bundle of other cannabinoids, goes directly into your lungs, where it’s provided with a notably large surface area to enter the body. It doesn’t take long for the compounds to be absorbed—most scientists peg the waiting time around a couple of seconds, which is why smoked or vaporized cannabis provides such an instantaneous effect. From here, THC is absorbed into your bloodstream, which then transfers the cannabinoids past your blood-brain barrier and into your endocannabinoid system.


The endocannabinoid system is ”a group of endogenous cannabinoid receptors located in the mammalian brain and throughout the central and peripheral nervous systems.” Of its two currently known receptors, the CB1 receptor is known for controlling the psychoactive properties of cannabis, as a result of its high binding affinity with THC.


If you do happen to be vaporizing, it can also behoove you to remain mindful of exactly what temperature your device is set. The 200-plus terpenes and cannabinoids found in cannabis all have different boiling points, which can mean substantially different effects at different temperatures. For instance, vaporizers set to lower temperatures are known for a focused, clear-headed effect due to the release of pinene, according to Leafly.com. Higher temp vaping is associated with more of a pain-relieving, sedative effect which can be tied back to the presence of linalool. The effects of smoked cannabis are said to peak approximately ten minutes after consumption and slowly dissipate over the next one to two hours.


If you’re eating your cannabis, we begin at a familiar first step: you must decarboxylate your medicine. While ingesting raw cannabis is known to have several health benefits of its own, it still must be heated to help fully activate its compounds. This won’t be an issue if you get pre-packaged products from other providers, but it’s where things can initially go awry for many first-timers attempting to make their own.


Once ingested, THC and other cannabinoids’ path into your blood stream also work a bit differently. Instead of being absorbed by your lungs, the compounds are gathered from your stomach, where they’re then transferred to the liver. Here, your body metabolizes the THC, converting most of it into 11-hydroxy-THC, which researchers estimate to be five to ten more times more psychoactive than the delta-9-THC found in smoked cannabis. This helps explain why many perceive edibles to have stronger effects than smoked cannabis, despite a lower percentage of cannabinoids ever reaching the blood plasma.


From the liver, compounds are transferred throughout the rest of one’s body via the bloodstream, where it usually reaches the brain in one or two hours. Though it takes longer for THC to reach your brain, once it does, it crosses the blood-brain barrier with relative ease compared to smoked compounds. Effects of orally ingested cannabis are known to usually last between five and 10 hours. If a patient overdoses (e.g., has feelings of anxiety and/or paranoia) a high-CBD tincture or drink is recommended for fast-acting relief.


No one way of using your medicine is universally better than others; patient experiences are dependent on body chemistry and other circumstances. Which method of administration will work best for you is dependent on what you hope to achieve by medicating with cannabis.


We hope that helped clear some of the fog around why smoking and eating cannabis can affect patients in such vastly different ways!