It’s all rather confusing, really. You get a gram of cannabis that is labeled at 22% THC and an edible labeled in milligrams, and neither of those cannabinoid measurements means anything to you, except some underlying idea that more is stronger. But which is stronger? And for what reason?
Edibles vs smoking cannabis is a very logical inquiry to have. Indeed, the effects of cannabis on the mind and body are altered, like any other drug, dependent upon which route you administer it. In order to better highlight the differences of edible high vs smoking high, let’s look at the concept of absorption.
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Into the Body We Go
Both smoked marijuana and eaten cannabis must go through a decarboxylation process before many of the cannabinoids contained within are active. With smoking, your lighter, torch, or matchbook that act as the catalyst. In the case of edibles, the cannabinoids had been activated before being prepared as an edible through heat and/or time. I’d like you to think about the fact cannabinoids can be absorbed by both the lungs and the stomach and, curiously, speculate which has higher absorption.
First Pass Metabolism
In navigating the edible high vs smoking high debate, first pass metabolism is among the most divergent factors affecting user experience. First pass metabolism is just a fancy term to say that the drug must pass through the GI tract and be metabolized in the liver before entering the bloodstream. The human liver–a piece of living equipment that acts as a filter–decides what gets into the blood through the stomach.
As you can probably imagine, smoke doesn’t go to your stomach and isn’t ever put through first pass metabolism. Instead, with smoking the absorption into the blood of active cannabinoids happens through the lungs–a highly vascularized space with ready access to blood vessels and capillaries.
While both edibles vs smoking cannabis supply the body with THC, the human body contains an additional filter to prevent harmful compounds from entering the brain. The blood-brain barrier acts uniformly to prevent excess or harmful things from entering the brain, as blood vessels within the brain lack the space between endothelial cells to get rid of things as effectively as within other organ systems.
At this point, edibles vs smoking becomes a conversation more about bioavailability; that is, the ability of the human body to absorb and make available a substance in the blood. While smoking cannabis does allow the active cannabinoids to be rapidly taken into the bloodstream, the rate at which they are available to the brain varies from 2%-56%, dependent upon potency of the marijuana and personal factors related to smoking (Did you cough? Did you hold it in till you can’t anymore?).
The discussion surrounding edible high vs smoking high starts to get mathematically interesting at this point. While smoked marijuana, on average, grants 30% bioavailability, the blood-brain barrier is incredibly effective at limiting the rate by which the THC can pass through the lipid membrane into the brain. Interestingly, the quick absorption into the blood of THC with smoked marijuana provides quick uptake of THC by the brain but is limited in its effect as the smoked THC is also being transported and stored in many other major organs. When thinking about edibles vs smoking, it is also important to note when peak concentrations happen and how fast they dissipate. You can also think about it like this:
1 gram of cannabis @ 20% THC
1 Gram = 1000mg
200mg*30% bioavailability = 60 mg
This means 60 milligrams is available to the body at peak concentrations (roughly 10 minutes after smoking) if you smoked the entire gram at once. The question of edibles vs smoking should also take into consideration the rate at which peak concentrations decrease. For smoking, concentrations that cause the marked effects of cannabis consumption are virtually gone within 3-4 hours, with most THC concentrations in the blood dropping quickly after the first 90 minutes. And this is where it gets kind of…weird?
The Remarkable Metabolite
Edible high vs smoking high, as we have seen, are different in how they absorb THC into the bloodstream. The first pass metabolism that the active cannabinoids are exposed to actually changes the chemical structure of the THC. Through conversion within the liver, a pro-drug of THC is created: 11-hydroxy-THC, and it is the addition of the hydroxyl group that changes just how potent edibles vs smoking are.
To better understand the wonder that is 11-hydroxy-THC, the bioavailability of orally consumed THC is much lower than that of its smoked counterpart, having between 6-10% bioavailability. While this number can be bolstered to between 10-20% with the addition of soy lecithin, it should be assumed that edibles vs smoking will always have a lower bioavailability than smoked cannabis.
Logically, the edible high vs smoking high debate should end right here. We can calculate that, on average, THC from smoked sources is at least four times more available to the blood that THC from oral consumption, so how can you still debate edibles vs smoking on the criteria of effect?
11-Hydroxy-THC, a cannabinoid metabolite, is thought to possess psychoactive properties five times that of smoked cannabis. In the discussion of edible high vs smoking high, it is speculated that the increased psychotropic experience and effect on the central nervous system caused by oral administration of marijuana edibles can be explained by 11-hydroxy-THC’s ability to pass more easily though the blood-brain barrier. Think about it like this:
1 gram @ 20% THC = 200mg THC/1g
200mg/ 8% bioavailability = 16mg THC
16mg THC x 5 = 80mg 11-hydroxy-THC
As you can see, edibles vs smoking–after taking into consideration the metabolic conversion process–no longer looks like such a fair comparison. Compound the increased nervous system effects of edibles with the extended duration (up to 6 hours longer than smoked) the experience lasts and it is little surprise that people chose edible high vs smoking high for long-lasting, more intense body highs.
Consider your purpose
The edibles vs smoking debate should be internal. That is, you should always be the one deciding what works best for you. I ask that edible high vs smoking high be a conversation in your head with yourself. Decide if you want to have the effects last all day. Choose if you want to experience the effects minutes after consumption. Think about how much you are consuming, and what you can expect at that dose. Consider your surroundings: are you with people?
As we have seen, the way your body interacts with cannabis differs dependent upon the route you consume it. Edibles vs smoking not only produce different effects over different lengths of time but are themselves different chemical experiences. While 11-hydroxy-THC is produced in both marijuana edibles and smoked cannabis, the levels at which it is present within smoked weed is significantly reduced as it has the ability to enter the bloodstream before being transported to the liver (where it is stored).