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Toking: We're Doing It Wrong

Updated: Nov 13, 2022

Welcome to Higher Learning LV, where knowledge is power and ignorance is decidedly not bliss. The science of toking (smoking cannabis) may surprise you. Most of the country has been doing it wrong (Hollywood proves it on a daily basis).

Often, first time marijuana consumers are told to "pull in the smoke and hold your breath." Sometimes newbies are instructed to toke "like a cigarette, only hold it for a while to get it all." Cheech & Chong and countless Hollywood films have made things perfectly clear: Hold your breath during a toke or you won't get the most from your precious and expensive herbal medicine.

Unfortunately, science tells us that this is completely wrong. Nearly a century of cannabis prohibition in North America has resulted in a number of urban legends and a massive trove of misinformation regarding this helpful herb. The myth of holding one's breath to increase the potency of a sample of smoked cannabis is simply not true and zero benefit is gained from the act. Read on to learn why.

We've All Been Wrong

We can't take the guilt. We have to come out of the closet. We've been doing it wrong. In fact, many in the cannabis community have been doing it wrong when it comes to smoking cannabis.

Millions of cannabis consumers, when they smoke or vape, retain, or hold in, their inhale for several seconds—sometimes as long as they are able.

Millions of cannabis consumers, when they smoke or vape, retain, or hold in, their inhale for several seconds—sometimes as long as they are able. Often, this results in embarrassingly overflowing lungs, excessive coughing, and a temporary inability to speak. Not exactly party enhancers or improvements in one's social charisma.

Holding air in one's lungs that contains smoke that features tars and carcinogens is simply not recommended. In fact, modern cannabis science has revealed that it's actually harmful.

We posed the issue to Dr. Sunil Aggarwal, a Seattle-based physician and cannabinoid integrative medicine specialist. He laughed and said that such Hollywood-inspired shenanigans are not only completely worthless in terms of gaining more potency from cannabinoids such as delta-8 or delta-9 THC, but that holding in cannabis smoke is harmful to one's health—especially over a prolonged period.

Oxygen Deprivation

Cannabis smoke contains tars and carcinogens that gain more exposure time within a cannabis consumer's mouth, esophagus, and lungs when one holds their breath during a toke. Cannabis vapor, which involves only a heated airflow and no combustion, contains none of the tars or carcinogens (it is mostly cannabinoids, particularly THC). However, holding a vape inhale does nothing more than deprive one's brain of oxygen, something that is not good for brain cells.

Immediate THC Absorption

There are a variety of reasons that cannabis smokers should not hold their breath during a toke. First, absorption of cannabinoids and terpenes within the lungs is basically immediate. Technically, the period required for absorption is 2-3 milliseconds (ms), or thousandths of a second.

Fun fact: Human adult lungs feature the surface area of a tennis court. Thus, this absorption mechanism occurs not only very fast, but also over a relatively large area.

After absorption, the lungs drop the quickly-absorbed THC cannabinoids into the bloodstream and send them directly to the heart, which pumps them directly to the brain. Once through the extremely discerning Blood Brain Barrier and inside the brain, cannabinoids such as THC then bind with CB1 receptors.

This process requires an average of two to two-and-a-half minutes to complete. Those who speak of an almost immediate euphoria are almost certainly experiencing psychosomatic symptoms driven by anticipation.

It should be noted that cannabinoids like THC, CBD, CBG, and CBN bind to CB1 and CB2 receptors (and other types of receptors) throughout the entire body—not just in the brain.

Like what you just read? Check out our new Cannabis for Cancer Hub that features links to all of our articles about marijuana for cancer.

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