The pharmacological effects of cannabis vary with dose and route of administration. The most commonly used methods of delivery are smoking, vaporizing, dabbing and oral consumption. Cannabis can also be used to make balms, salves, creams and lotions for topical administration.
This is the inhalation of the smoke produced by combustion of the cannabis flower or concentrate. When inhaled, smoke passes through the lungs, where the blood is oxygenated, directly into the bloodstream. Within seconds, the cannabinoids, such as THC and CBD, are absorbed by tissues and organs in the body. Cannabinoids are absorbed most quickly into fat cells and the brain. The cannabinoid receptors in the brain immediately respond the the cannabinoids entering the bloodstream. For this reason, a person can expect to feel the effects almost instantly when using this method of delivery.
Marijuana can be smoked through many different avenues. It is most commonly smoked in the form of a joint or blunt, or out of a glass pipe or water bong. Smoking devices can also be constructed out of fruit and vegetables. It is not recommended to smoke cannabis out of plastic, nor coated aluminum cans or foil.
Cannabis vapor is produced when the buds or concentrates are heated to a temperature just lower than that of combustion. In the same manner as smoking, cannabinoids are introduced into the bloodstream and then the brain almost immediately after inhaling, via absorption through the lungs. How does vaporizing differ from smoking? Vapor contains a higher percentage of cannabinoids per puff, while also removing the health risks associated with smoking. Vaporizing avoids combustion, thereby reducing the amount of toxic byproducts inhaled. For this reason, and because it does not contain the sugar and fats associated with most edible methods of delivery, vaporizing is the ‘healthiest’ method of cannabis delivery.
There is a plethora of vaporizing devices on the market. This is not a complete list, but includes the most common types. They can be portable, like the battery operated vaporizer pens, or glass bowl vaporizer attachments that turn any bowl into a vaporizer. A similar product is available as an attachment for bongs. There are also vaporizers that require an electric outlet to work like the popular Volcano brand. This digital vaporizer fills a food grade plastic balloon with the vapor, so that the consumer may slowly inhale it over time. Another is the box style vaporizer. This consists of a boxed heating element that attaches to a long tube from which the vapor can be inhaled.
Dabbing is a newer, more complicated, method of delivery that occurs when a person places a ‘dab’ of cannabis concentrate, such as butane hash oil, onto a heated surface known as a nail. The cannabis concentrate is vaporized on contact, and ready to be inhaled through a glass piece known as a ‘dab rig’ or an ‘oil rig.’ Most dab rigs look similar to bongs because they do have water chambers, but on a rig, the nail has replaced the bowl. Dab rigs cannot be used to smoke cannabis flowers. The nail is heated to a temperature that is not safe for human skin to touch, so a tool that can be called a wand, dabber, dropper, or needle is used to scoop the cannabis concentrate and touch it to the nail head. This tool is important because it prevents a person from being burned.
There are a few different types of oil rigs for dabbing that range from manual to electric. The original prototype requires that the nail be heated with a butane torch until it reaches a temperature between 550°F and 650ºF. Electronic nails are also available. The electronic version requires a wall plug in place of a torch. Once the e-nail is plugged into the wall, the ideal temperature is selected, and the nail will heat to that temperature. In both cases, once the nail has reached the desired temperature, the dab is then placed on the nail for it to vaporize before it can be inhaled.
Some nails require a ‘dome’ accessory which is used as a cap to place over the nail once the concentrate has been dabbed onto it. A dome helps to contain the vapor and direct it back down for inhalation, as it would otherwise be wasted. Some nails are domeless. Nails must be constructed from a material that is able to withstand extreme heat, and therefore are most often constructed out of titanium or quartz.
In the photo above, the woman is using a wand to dab some cannabis concentrate onto the nail head as she inhales the vapor from the dab rig.
photo credit: HighTimes
Cannabinoids are NOT water soluble. They are, however, soluble in fats and alcohol. The active components must be suspended in a fat or extracted by an alcohol. They will not be successfully extracted by boiling water alone. This is why the most common form of edibles are baked goods made with butter or oil, such as cookies, brownies and cakes or sugary candy and fruit snacks.
Because of how it is processed in the body, orally administered cannabis releases psychoactive compounds more slowly than when the plant is smoked, so it may take up to 2 hours to feel the effects of digested cannabis. When smoked, delta-9 THC bypasses processing by the liver and directly enters our bloodstream via the lungs. When eaten, cannabis is metabolized by the liver, changing delta-9 THC into 11-hydroxy-THC. This results in a slower onset with more intense effects. The effects of the digested 11-hydroxy-THC are often described as being more psychedelic.
Orally delivered cannabis methods of administration include edibles, tinctures, oil capsules, activated THC capsules and cannabis infused beverages. Tinctures are slightly different because they are both digested, and absorbed directly into the blood stream sub-lingually (under the tongue). A tincture is most often administered from a dropper under the tongue. It is then held under the tongue for as long as possible, to absorb quickly into the bloodstream, before being swallowed for digestion.
Cannabis salves, balms and creams are considered topical methods of administration. All of these products begin with cannabis infused oil. The infused oil is then combined with other ingredients to create salves, balms, creams and lotions.
Salves and balms are primarily a semi-solid mix of fatty ingredients such as oils and waxes, usually with no water part at all, though they may contain a small amount of herbal tincture or similar. This differentiates them from creams and lotions which contain both fats and waters.
Balms and salves are for external protection and treatment of irritated and dry skin, whereas the lotions and creams can be absorbed through the skin to treat location specific ailments like arthritis or muscle pain.
This post was originally published on August 26, 2014, it was updated on October 5, 2017.