Today, nearly one-fifth of the way into the 21st century, patients and lifestyle users have more options for consuming the kind herb than at any time in the more than 10,000 year history of cannabis use by humans. From smoking and vaporizing to tinctures, concentrates, and even topicals, there’s an avenue of consumption for every person, even those who must maintain a high level of discretion due to prohibitionist laws or unapproving co-workers, housemates, or landlords.
From very sick patients with respiratory ailments to children with seizures to recreational users seeking psychoactive effects, some form of cannabis consumed in one of many different ways is sure to be attractive and conducive to their lifestyle. Those in legal states have considerably more options than users where cannabis is illegal and safe access via dispensaries and trained budtenders is unavailable. Desperate tokers acclimated to using a soda or beer can to smoke their herb are encouraged to find a nice glass spoon or roll a joint due to the heavy metals that may be inhaled from the heated aluminum and deposited in the brain. This is the role played by head shops, after all.
A Brief American History
The period of 1837 to 1937 has been described by some historians as the golden age of medicinal cannabis, largely because the herb was part of the American Pharmacopoeia and resided in most home medicine cabinets in the form of a liquid tincture administered from an eyedropper or spoon. In 1854, cannabis was listed in the United States Dispensatory, an unofficial listing of drugs, and commercial remedies based on cannabis from major companies at the time, like Park-Davis, were readily available in drugstores and pharmacies in every community in the country.
It wasn’t until the 1920s and ’30s that a combination of the availability of Bayer aspirin in pill form (it was sold as only a powder from 1900 to about 1915) and the Reefer Madness campaign that led to cannabis prohibition had largely supplanted the herb as a medicine in the minds of most consumers in the United States.
This is also why prohibitionists like Harry Anslinger and William Randolph Hearst labeled the natural herb marijuana, not cannabis. “Marijuana” was a term borrowed from the Mexican Spanish term for the plant, “marihuana,” which was either purposefully or accidentally misspelled. Cannabis was a familiar, benign tincture medicine to most people, forcing the racist, monopolistic campaign that led to its prohibition in 1937 to adopt a term that was unfamiliar to most citizens.
At about this same time, cannabis began gaining popularity as a non-medicinal euphoriant that was smoked, typically in hand-rolled joints. Smoking cannabis was especially popular with jazz musicians of the period such as Louis Armstrong, who sometimes stealthily described smoking pot in his songs by referring to it as a popular slang label at the time, muggles.
For decades, consumption of cannabis as a euphoriant was a very underground activity associated with musicians, artists, and other bohemians, especially those in large cities that eventually lead to popularity among the urban beatniks of the 1950s and early ’60s. During the psychedelic era of the late 1960s, in which American youth, especially college students, were protesting the Vietnam War and social injustice, cannabis gained a solid foothold in the coming-of-age saga of American teenagers that has pervaded to this day.
Cannabis Goes Mainstream
In the 1960s through 2000s, most cannabis in the United States was consumed in joints or pipes made of glass, wood, or metal (and sometimes carved from apples or gourds). Everything from high-end decorative bongs from celebrity glass blowers to homebrew contraptions involving relatively unsafe and hot-to-the-touch plumbing parts were employed in the pursuit of supplementing one’s endocannabinoid system with a few cannabinoids and terpenes.
During the 1990s, vaporization emerged as a viable means of inhaling the cannabinoids and terpenes that offer all of the medical or psychoactive effect of cannabis. Affordable consumer desktop models became available that allowed patients to medicate in a manner that is considered safer than smoking because of the lack of combustion that leads to the consumption of known carcinogens. Vaporizers in the $60-500 range became commonly available at head shops, dispensaries, and online. Because they can be used to vaporize other herbs and medicines, such devices are legal in most areas of the U.S.
Legalization Spawns New Forms of Consumption
Legalized states like Washington, California, Oregon, and Colorado, which encourage semi or fully open markets and entrepreneurial efforts to better serve patients and lifestyle consumers, have resulted in a wealth of new types of cannabis concentrates and edibles. Many startups and companies now specialize in low-THC products that enable patients to maintain a busy lifestyle and not get couchlock while they medicate, while others produce high-potency concentrates and edibles designed to provide robust relief to those suffering pain and nausea, especially those who have built up a tolerance.
- Smoke: The act of smoking is fairly straightforward and is defined as the application of a flame to the raw nugs or ground flowers of a dried and cured cannabis plant or a concentrate. Cannabis can be smoked using bongs (including water bongs, gravity bongs, and other specialized types), pipes (such as one hitters and the most popular form, spoons), water pipes, and the ages-old and ubiquitous joint.
- Vapor: Vaporization involves passing a stream of heated air over a sample of ground cannabis flowers or concentrate. Some high-end desktop vaporizers employ forced-air to fill bags that are then inhaled by patients, while others incorporate a passive design that moves hot air through the cannabis prior to being inhaled by a patient (often through a tube or “whip”). Dabbing is the act of touching a small portion of concentrate like BHO to a hot surface made of titanium, quartz, or ceramic to produce a vapor that is inhaled via a bong or glass straw.
- Edibles (ingestion): Included in this group is confections, candy, chocolate, soda, bhang milk, and other forms of cannabis-infused food, often made with infused oil or cannabutter (cannabis-infused butter). For the most part, if it can be eaten, it can be infused with cannabis or THC. Edibles offer enhanced potency and longer duration, but the major disadvantage of slow onset and unpredictable efficacy, especially for those new to their use.
- Topicals: In legal states, companies like Dixie Brands are beginning to offer a line of creams, balms, and salves that are infused with THC, CBD (the highly medicinal non-psychoactive cousin of THC), or both in specific ratios, like 1:1. Many medical cannabis advocates and medical professionals claim that a ratio like 1:1 of THC to CBD offers a strong efficacy for a variety of physical ailments, especially those involving inflammation, such as arthritis and Crohn’s disease.
- Tinctures: Sometimes called tonics, these are simply cannabis flowers or trim leaves that have been soaked in alcohol in the dark for several weeks. The alcohol acts as a solvent, separating the resin glands that contain cannabinoids and terpenes from the plant matter. The resin becomes infused into the alcohol, which is then evaporated or cooked off until a low-alcohol, THC-rich liquid remains. Often, tinctures are made with honey or other natural sweeteners that combat the taste of the residual alcohol.
- Concentrates: Sometimes called extracts, these potent doses of cannabinoids are created using solvents or extraction agents like butane, CO2, or even ice water. CBD oil, popular among childhood epilepsy sufferers for its anti-seizure qualities, is considered a concentrate. Like topicals, many concentrates offer a mix of THC and CBD, while others are labeled as sativa, indica, or hybrid in terms of their psychoactive effects and energy level. Concentrates offer both patients and lifestyle users the benefit of harm reduction, especially if they are vaporized.
More about Vaping
In the early 2000s, the consumption of cannabis via vaporization appeared on the scene. Products became to enter the market that allowed patients and consumers to safely and accurately vaporize their cannabis flowers, avoiding the potentially harmful carcinogens and toxins produced when any plant matter, be it tobacco or cannabis, is combusted by a flame.
Consumers can now vape using not only robust (and sometimes expensive) desktop models, but also with mobile vape devices like the Vapir Prima or pen vapes from companies like The Clear, Neos, Bloom Farms, and O.pen.VAPE. Pen vapes offer the advantage of impersonating e-cigarettes, or e-cigs, allowing patients in even prohibitionist states where cannabis is illegal to discreetly vaporize in public, while traveling, or at work. These devices, like all good vaporizers, emit very little of the smell that’s associated with smoking the herb, meaning even better secrecy for those who require it.
Vaporization is especially important for patients suffering from conditions like lung or esophagus cancer or bronchitis. Ironically, asthma patients actually gain relief from smoking cannabis because of the THC and CBD that it delivers to their confused lungs and the fact that it combats the underlying inflammation associated with the disease. As a bronchodilator, THC also aids in clearing bronchial pathways in the lungs to prevent sufferers from asphyxiating and suffering brain damage from oxygen deprivation.
Vaping, especially if using a high quality desktop model like the Volcano or Vapolution or a premium mobile unit like the Prima, involves none of the sidestream loss of medicine common with smoking, especially joints. A 1990 study by Mario Perez-Reyes (Marijuana Smoking: Factors that Influence the Bioavailability of Tetrahydrocannabinol) revealed that as much as 40-50 percent of the THC in a joint is lost to sidestream smoke. For patients already strained by the relatively high cost of cannabis, especially those who must shop on the black market, this much medicine lost to sidestream smoke is a serious blow to one’s budget and supply.
Know Your Edibles
Edibles offer distinct pros and cons for both patients and lifestyle users. Their greatest shortcoming is their slow onset, which makes cannabis-infused food and drinks a non-starter for many patients who suffer severe pain or the nausea associated with chemotherapy. Because they require 45 minutes to two hours to begin having an effect, patients in need of immediate relief are better served by smoking and vaping the flowers of the plant or concentrates.
Because edibles are processed by the gastrointestinal system and pass through both the stomach and the liver, their chemical journal varies from that of smoke and vapor. Edibles that contain roughly the same amount of THC or CBD as a smoked or vaporized variant typically deliver a stronger “body high” that lasts longer, although this depends largely on an individual’s body chemistry, metabolism, and overall level of health.
Aside from their slow onset, cannabis infused confections, foods, and drinks are an excellent way for patients to ingest their medicine when at work, on a flight, or simply on-the-go. They offer the advantage of supreme stealth, being even more discreet than a vape pen masquerading as an e-cigarette.
A Word About Concentrates
Concentrates, also available in arguably safer solventless varieties, are difficult to categorize because they can be smoked, vaporized (the most popular and recommended method), or even eaten if they are used to infuse edibles. When smoked or vaporized, concentrates offer fast onset (within a few minutes), a priceless benefit for patients with pain or nausea or leisure users who want to unwind after a hard day at work and don’t want it to take an hour and four pipe bowls of ground flowers to achieve the desired effects.
Concentrates, especially when vaporized, are touted as an avenue of harm reduction because they offer smoke or vapor that is considerably more dense in molecules like THC, CBD, and a variety of terpenes (if these delicate, volatile chemicals survive the lifecycle of harvest, curing, and the heat from inhalation, that is). In fact, a single toke or dab of reputable, relatively pure concentrate can offer the same dose of medicine or euphoriant delivered by an entire joint of mid-grade or even premium cannabis flowers. If vaporized, this all occurs without the potentially harmful toxins associated with smoking.
Concentrates also offer more of what consumers want — cannabinoids and terpenes — and less of what they don’t need, namely the plant matter and anything outside of the shimmery, resinous trichomes that produce all these medicinal chemicals within the plant. Concentrates span a wide range, from old school kief and hash to modern day BHO and CO2 oil. Newer iterations of the art include rosin, a homebrew method involving cannabis flowers and a hair straightener, and live resin, a laboratory-only process that employs cryogenic freezing of freshly harvested plants and maintains an incredibly robust terpene profile. Terpene-rich concentrates offer superior aroma and flavor, as well as enhanced medicinal efficacy for patients. Terpenes are also known to buffer or enhance the effects of cannabinoids like THC.
Go Forth and Experiment
Despite one’s favorite avenues of consumption, a wide variety of cannabis flowers and products are available to modern patients and tokers, including concentrates, edibles, and topicals. As a whole, these solutions offer powerful efficacy for athletes, all types of lifestyle users, and active professionals. The stealthy discretion of mobile vaporizers and vape pens allows users to enjoy their medicine or euphoriant in more flexible ways, including at work or when traveling. Others will prefer old school joints when on the move or away from home.
Regardless of one’s particular method of consumption, readers — especially those in legal states offering safe access and trained budtenders — are encouraged to experiment to determine the forms and methods of use that work best for them and their particular disease, lifestyle, and environment.
This post was originally published on November 24, 2015, it was updated on October 5, 2017.