Edibles vs. Smoking: How Do They Compare?

How we consume cannabis products makes a substantial difference in their effects. Two of the most popular methods, edible ingestion and inhalation, both have distinct characteristics. Since both applications can contain the full spectrum of THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids, how can the results be so drastically different? In this article, we will explore the similarities and differences between smoking cannabis and consuming a THC edible. 

 

 

Lung Function

Many people wouldn’t expect that consuming THC could be beneficial for lung health. When most people think of cannabis, a massive bong or a joint with huge smoke plumes come to mind. However, current research has found that consuming THC in any form can have an overall positive impact on the lungs.

In a study conducted in 2012, researchers found that people who smoked cannabis had better lung function than those smoking cigarettes. More interestingly, it was discovered that those who smoked cannabis in a moderate or lower level had better lung function than those who didn’t smoke at all.

Research articles indicate that the endocannabinoid receptors in the lungs can improve lung function by reducing inflammation. The endocannabinoid receptors in the lungs, known as CB1 and CB2 receptors, are targeted by THC and other cannabinoids, which promote an anti-inflammatory response. Researchers believe this anti-inflammation and relaxation of the lungs produces increased lung function. 

However, any time you breathe in smoke, it will inevitably bring unwanted chemicals and particles into your lungs, such as carcinogens. This is particularly harmful to those who possess some type of chronic lung disease, or those whose pulmonary systems are especially susceptible in general.  

The lungs of those suffering from asthma or COPD are sensitive and can become inflamed from the byproducts of smoking cannabis. Many have instead turned to edibles, which eliminates the possibility of further inflammation since no combustion is involved. The perceived drawback is that the effects of THC from consuming edibles tend to be much stronger and more unpredictable, especially to novice consumers. 


Are Edibles Really More Potent Than Smoking Cannabis?

We all know that edibles are infamously potent. You’ve probably heard a story from a friend, watched a scene from a stoner comedy, or have a personal experience with an outrageously strong edible. So what are the reasons behind a THC edibles potent and long-lasting force? 

THC edibles give the potent effects that we all love or hate due to a string of unique processes. After eating an edible, the THC is absorbed by the stomach and subsequently processed in the liver. The THC gets metabolized into a form called 11-hydroxy-THC by the liver. This compound is more water-soluble than the THC that enters your body when smoked. 

When you smoke cannabis, you combust the plant material and inhale it into your lungs. The active THC enters your blood via the alveoli in your lungs, and then diffuses and binds to endocannabinoid receptors throughout your body.

When THC enters your bloodstream from the lungs, it is fat-soluble. It isn’t absorbed into the blood but is instead carried along by it inefficiently. For example, imagine a drop of oil floating on water - it’s difficult for the oil to disperse and diffuse throughout the water, so it floats on top.

With edibles, the 11-hydroxy metabolite processed by your liver can travel through your blood much quicker. This stimulates endocannabinoid receptors much more effectively by crossing the blood-brain barrier with ease. Now that we know why it feels stronger let’s take a look at why it lasts longer too. 


Duration, Onset, and The Role of Bioavailability

The most important factor when considering the length, onset, and potency of THC is its bioavailability. Bioavailability measures how a substance gets absorbed and utilized by your body based on how much is administered.  

For instance, when smoking a joint, it’s reported that there is, on average, a 30% bioavailability. Meaning only 30% of the THC you smoke actually makes it to the endocannabinoid system. The THC is rapidly absorbed by your lungs, which then diffuses to the bloodstream quickly, so you’ll feel the effect within minutes. 

After that, the effects will last between 1 and 3 hours. This short duration is due to all the THC being absorbed at once. For the THC and its subsequent effects to persist in your body, you’ll need to be continuously smoking. 

With edibles, it’s a different and slightly more complicated story. Overall, the bioavailability of conventional edibles is thought to be lower, at around 20%. This, of course, does not take into account sublingual or rectal administration, which has much higher rates of bioavailability. However, researchers believe the longevity of edibles is due to the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. 

As an edible moves through the GI tract, it is continuously being absorbed over time. This process is slow, and not everything gets sponged up simultaneously. On top of that, while the THC is being absorbed, it needs to form into micelles.

Micelles are microscopic ‘balls’ of THC that allow the THC to travel through water. Since these micelles take time to form, it slows the absorption rate. During this process, some of the THC turns into micelles and is absorbed, while the rest is lost.  

It’s because of the complicated and unique process of digestion and absorption that conventional edibles can take hours to affect users. Average onset after consuming an edible can be anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 full hours. The high can last over 8 hours (4-8 hours is the half-life of 11-hydroxy-THC), with multiple peaks throughout. This lengthy journey through the GI tract and the micelle formation are most likely responsible for the somewhat unpredictable onset and varied effects. 


Dosage Makes All The Difference

This is the primary comparison between cannabis edibles and smoking cannabis - that all dosages are not created equal.

When consuming cannabis, either smoking or ingesting edibles, the dosage will make all the difference. Since we are all individuals, similar dosages will affect each of us differently. For some, a small dose of an edible (even under the state recommended 10mg) will hit them much harder and last much longer, but others will experience mild effects. The same principle applies when smoking cannabis as well. 

When consuming edibles, there are many variables to consider. A person’s weight, endocannabinoid system, metabolism, what they ate that day, how much food has been processed already, and much more. Correctly dosing is essential and requires experimentation until a desirable dose is reached.

Properly dosing edibles can take some time due to the lengthy onset and duration of the high. Luckily, THC edibles in licensed facilities are required to have their THC dosage in milligrams on prominent display. Once this process is achieved (LINK DOSING GUIDE), you can dose across different THC edible products safely. 

Similarly, cannabis flower is lab tested and also displays the THC amount as a percentage. Dosing flower can be a faster process due to how quick the onset is. You can easily take one inhale, wait 30 minutes to see how it affects you and continue or stop according to how you feel. Edibles from reliable sources will also always provide the same effects, it just may take more effort to find your specific dose!

With either flower or edibles, make sure to start with a low dosage and work your way up (titrate) until you find a comfortable amount. Once you find your ideal quantity, you’ll be able to enjoy your cannabis products consistently and safely. 




References 

  1. Pletcher MJ, Vittinghoff E, Kalhan R, et al. Association Between Marijuana Exposure and Pulmonary Function Over 20 Years. JAMA. 2012;307(2):173–181. doi:10.1001/jama.2011.1961https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/1104848

  1. Sharma, P., Murthy, P., & Bharath, M. M. (2012). Chemistry, metabolism, and toxicology of cannabis: clinical implications. Iranian journal of psychiatry, 7(4), 149–156. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3570572/

  1. Schwilke, E. W., Schwope, D. M., Karschner, E. L., Lowe, R. H., Darwin, W. D., Kelly, D. L., … Huestis, M. A. (2009, December 1). Δ9-Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), 11-Hydroxy-THC, and 11-Nor-9-carboxy-THC Plasma Pharmacokinetics during and after Continuous High-Dose Oral THC. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19833841
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