Cannabis Consumption Avenues

Updated: May 9

Many cannabis users perceive inhalation of smoke or vapor and edibles (food that is infused with cannabinoids and terpenes) to be the only avenues by which cannabis can be consumed. They are, unfortunately, unaware of several other unique and potentially valuable ways of getting target phytomolecules into their endocannabinoid system.

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This Quick Read article gives readers an overview of the varied avenues by which the beneficial terpenes and cannabinoids produced by cannabis and hemp can be consumed. These avenues include:

  • Ingestion

  • Inhalation

  • Nanoemulsified beverages

  • Sublingual

  • Topicals

  • Transdermal patches


Sublingual Tinctures

Tinctures are liquid or oil extractions of cannabis that are typically packaged in a one- or two-ounce bottle featuring an eye dropper. Quality brands feature a graduated eyedropper for accurate dosing.


When tinctures are delivered under the tongue, a consumption avenue called sublingual, they skip the typical two-hour onset period of traditional edibles (which must be digested by the stomach and liver) and go directly into the bloodstream. Two other consumption avenues go directly into the bloodstream to result in relatively speedy onset: Nanoemulsion and transdermal patches (featured below).

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Like edibles, tinctures are a popular consumption form, especially for mobile consumers with busy careers and lives. Unlike smoking and vaping, tinctures can be stealthily consumed at work or in a public place such as an airport or retail store—something that smoking and vaping cannot achieve.


Care must be taken to hold a tincture under one's tongue for 30 to 60 seconds. Haste makes waste (and longer onset) when it comes to sublingual tinctures.

Sublingual consumption obviously risks (and typically involves) some of the tincture passing through the esophagus and into the stomach. Care must be taken to hold a tincture under one's tongue for 30 to 60 seconds. Haste makes waste (and longer onset) when it comes to sublingual tinctures.


Onset period: 10-20 minutes


Inhalation

Inhalation can occur in two ways: Vaporization (vaping) and combustion (smoking). Vaporization is when a warm stream of air passes over or through a sample of cannabis loose-leaf flower or concentrate oil that contains the target molecules (terpenes and cannabinoids) and carries them into the lungs.


Combustion is when a flame is applied to a loose-leaf or concentrated cannabis product, resulting in smoke (not vapor). It should be noted that smoke and vapor involve very different chemical processes, but an identical onset period. (For more information about smoke versus vapor, see Boiling Points for Dabbing and Understanding Safe Dab Temperatures.)

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From the lungs, these target molecules are passed directly to the heart, from which they are pumped to the brain. Inhalation features relatively poor overall bioavailability, but provides the advantage of the fastest onset period of all consumption types (valuable for patients suffering from conditions like anxiety and pain). Also, many consumers and patients prefer inhalation over other consumption avenues.


Onset period: 2.5 minutes


Ingestion

Ingestion, or eating, is a popular consumption avenue for cannabinoids and terpenes. When cannabis is eaten, it is often called an edible. One advantage of ingestion is higher bioavailability than other avenues.


Another is discreet consumption due to the lack of smoke or vapor. This makes ingestion an appealing way of consuming the herb, especially for those who do not want to smoke based on personal preference or an environment that does not allow it (such as offices and other public spaces).


One advantage of ingestion is higher bioavailability than other avenues.

However, the downside of ingestion is the longest onset period of any consumption avenue. This is both frustrating for patients suffering conditions that require a faster onset (such as anxiety and pain), but also makes dosing an issue.

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The mass media is rife with reports of journalists and celebrities who ate an edible, waited 10 or 20 minutes, felt nothing, and ate some more. This mechanisms often leads to excessive dosing that may produce panic attacks, severe disorientation, and great discomfort. Some who overdose on edibles even report a perception that they are dying.


Onset period: 1-2.5 hours


Nanoemulsified Beverages

While nanoemulsified beverages are certainly, technically speaking, edibles, they are novel enough to warrant their own category. Nanoemulsification is a process by which very small beverage particles are created via a process such as ultrasonic agitation. This allows fat-loving, water-fearing molecules such as terpenes and cannabinoids to commingle with water molecules that form the base of beverages.

The nanoemulsification process results in two primary advantages: Significantly greater bioavailability and a fast onset period that matches tinctures and transdermal patches (10-20 minutes). In fact, the bioavailability of nanoemulsified cannabis products is among the greatest of any consumption avenue. Because of these factors, many thought leaders int he cannabis industry predict that infused beverages made with nanoemulsion will become a large market segment that generates tens of billions of dollars in the United States alone.


The nanoemulsification process results in two primary advantages: Significantly greater bioavailability and a fast onset period that matches tinctures and transdermal patches (10-20 minutes).

While boasting significantly above-average bioavailability and below-average onset period, one problem with cannabis infused beverages involving nanoemulsion is sometimes a steep price. Some single-serving nanoemulsified products carry a cost in excess of $10 (far beyond other beverage categories).


Onset period: 10-20 minutes


Topicals

Topicals manifest in the form of creams, lotions, salves, balms, and oils that are applied to the skin. Topicals are typically employed for localized treatment, including muscle soreness or an injury such as a sprain. For this reason, cannabis topicals are popular among both professional and amateur athletes, seniors, and those in physical therapy.

Topicals offer many advantages, including the lack of inhalation that accompanies vaping and smoking. Like edibles and sublingual tinctures, topicals can be applied in a much larger number of scenarios than smoke or vape.


Onset period: 1-10 minutes


Transdermal Patches

Transdermal patches are one of the least common cannabis consumption avenues. Like the nicotine patches used by those attempting to quit smoking tobacco cigarettes, they can be time-released and provide a steady flow of medicine over a multi-hour period of time.

Transdermal patches offer the same advantages of traditional topicals and sublingual tinctures in that they can be employed at work, in public, or even on a flight. For those who need to medicate throughout the day, such as pain patients or those who suffer severe anxiety, transdermal patches are a promising option.


Onset period: 10-20 minutes


Consumers Should Experiment

Many consumption channels beyond smoking, vaping, and traditional edibles are available to patients and lifestyle consumers of cannabis products. Those who have not experimented with sublingual tinctures or infused beverages involving nanoemulsification should try these increasingly popular product categories.


While smoking and vaping remain the most common forms of consumption, consumers are increasingly experimenting with tinctures and beverages for their cannabis.


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