How Smoking Cannabis Works

By Gooey Rabinski | October 09, 2015

With no doubt, the most popular, and also most traditional, form of cannabis consumption is smoking. Although safer and more efficient means of inhaling the miracle molecules offered by the sacred herb have gained popularity during the past decade — such as vaporization, edibles, and tinctures — people still love to smoke herb.

The act is an especially social and communal one. The culture’s adherence to smoked cannabis illustrates its bohemian roots of self-reliance and affinity for low-tech, organic avenues of consumption.

The cannabis culture holds tightly to the tradition of smoking. Classic stoner moves such as Up in Smoke and Rolling Kansas embrace the act of smoking marijuana flowers right in their titles. The timeless image of a person toking a joint, with thumb and forefinger pinched in front of one’s mouth, is an almost universally recognized 20th century meme that will probably never die, regardless of the popularity of vape pens, dab rigs, and bleeding edge concentrates.

THC Chemistry Primer

First, a chemistry primer: The dried cannabis flowers residing in stash box contain almost no THC. Instead, they are filled with THC-A, the acidic precursor to THC that is slightly modified when heat or flame is applied to the trichomes, a process called decarboxylation. When one applies their Bic lighter to a joint or bowl full of ground cannabis flowers, the THC-A is instantly — and relatively thoroughly — converted to THC through combustion.

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Chemically speaking, this molecular modification results in only the loss of a carbon dioxide molecule from the THC-A molecule. Effectively, however, this minor chemical change results in a new molecule that fits perfectly into the body’s CB1 receptors found mostly in the brain and central nervous system that are part of the endocannabinoid system.

It is estimated that 80-90 percent of the THC in raw cannabis is stored in the form of THC-A (minor decarboxylation also occurs during the drying phase of harvesting via oxidation). When burned or vaped, about 95 percent of the THC-A in raw cannabis is converted to THC. Despite its lack of psychoactive properties, the serious conditions and disease symptoms for which THC-A provides relief include insomnia, muscle spasms and seizures, and nausea/vomiting, making it very effective for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and epileptics. It also relieves pain, acts as an appetite stimulant (perfect for wasting syndromes), and — possibly of most value — is believed to slow or stop the growth of cancerous tumors.

The Fastest Route

Physically, both smoking and vaping are the fastest way to get THC and other cannabinoids and terpenes into one’s body. When smoke (or vapor) that contains cannabinoids like THC, CBD, and CBN is inhaled, it immediately is absorbed by the lungs and transferred to the neighboring heart, where it is pumped directly to the brain. After a sufficient number of CB1 receptors in the brain are filled with THC molecules (the two have what researchers call a “high binding affinity”), one begins to feel the psychoactive effects of cannabis in the form of relaxation, euphoria, or medical relief. This entire pathway, from initial inhalation of cannabinoids and terpenes to the feeling of being “high,” takes about 2.5 minutes (although set and setting and personal metabolism play a major role).

Man smoking marijuana cigarette soft drug in Amsterdam, Netherlands

Medical therapy is gained from both THC and CBD, the former providing much more than simply euphoria. CBD, which binds only to the CB2 receptors found mostly in the organs and systems of the body associated with the immune system, is available in special strains of the plant. Strains high in CBD are also available in the form of many products in states that allow legal cannabis sales, including edibles, oils, concentrates, and other extracts or infused products.

Smoking vs. Vaping

Dr. Dale Gieringer of NORML in 2004 conducted a peer-reviewed research study published in the Journal of Cannabis Therapeutics. He found the vapor produced by the desktop Volcano vaporizer, a pharmaceutical-grade device, to be populated by only THC and trace amounts of CBD and CBN, two other cannabinoids (in some samples, only THC and CBN were detected, with an absence of CBD). Vapor produced by the Volcano was completely void of three toxins produced by smoking: Benzene (a known carcinogen), toluene, and naphthalene. Carbon monoxide and smoke tars were also “qualitatively reduced” during vaporization.

Concluded the NORML study, as reported by Gieringer:

“Our research indicates that vaporization is a promising technology for smoke harm reduction.”

Tried and True

Alison Myrden, a patient activist in Ontario, Canada who suffers from chronic progressive multiple sclerosis, can’t handle a pipe (spoon) or bong due to her tremors and neurological condition, which severely hamper her mobility and dexterity. Nor does she enjoy inhaling vapor out of a crinkly vaporizer bag or plastic tube. “I’m a joint girl,” she has said on many occasions, noting how ground and rolled cannabis flower simply works with her physical limitations. While she’s used devices like the top-flight Volcano vaporizer, she still clings to smoking the buds — often with some kief, hash, or BHO dabbled on top — after her caregiver roles them into a joint.

A few years ago, prior to his death in 2010, hemp activist and author of The Emperor Wears No ClothesJack Herer, was known for preaching his five second rule to anyone around him who would take notice. If one enjoyed the pleasure of sharing some cannabis with the veteran voice of the hemp movement, there was a good chance they would hear “Five seconds! Hold it for five seconds” as Herer gesticulated with his hand to emphasize the point.

An interesting discussion recently emerged between a cannabis industry veteran and the author regarding the need to hold cannabis smoke in one’s lungs for a few seconds with each toke. The industry veteran claimed that such holding of one’s breath wasn’t necessary and didn’t increase THC absorption rates. Thus, the author began inquiring with researchers and doctors known for their insight into such matters.

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Dr. Rick Doblin, founder and executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), said that he didn’t really have an answer, but that he holds in the smoke for a few seconds when he smokes. He went on the record saying that he doesn’t think the act of holding cannabis smoke in one’s lungs for a brief period is a serious health risk because cannabis isn’t linked to lung cancer. He also cites how various cannabinoids deliver anti-tumor properties. In other words, if there is any increase in tars or carcinogens from holding in the cannabis smoke, Doblin believes that it is counteracted by cannabinoids like THC and CBD.

For those who prefer some variety in their cannabis consumption, especially fans of the culture living in legal recreational states, plenty of options exist. Tinctures, concentrates, edibles, and even sublingual sprays and topical creams have emerged to help deliver medical relief and euphoria. Those who prefer to smoke, or who only smoke, can rest in the knowledge that the cannabinoids with which they are coating their lungs may be going a long way toward preventing cancer or respiratory conditions as a result of the toxins also carried with that smoke.

Photo credit: Drug Policy Alliance

Gooey Rabinski

Gooey Rabinski is the author of Understanding Medical Marijuana.

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