If you’ve ever eaten an edible, then you know that the high you feel can be quite different from that of smoking or vaping. Compared to the longer-lasting and more intense high from smoking or vaping, an edible high can be light and relaxing, heavy and sedated, or even feel like a trippy swirl amongst the cosmos. So, why is there such a difference in the experience between smoking or vaping and eating edibles? The answer: the human body metabolizes (processes) cannabinoids into differing sets of ratios depending on whether you inhale or eat cannabis.

Great, but what does that mean? (Hold on tight, science stuff ahead.) To begin with, there are many forms of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a compound found within the cannabis plant. The main form of this compound is tetrahydrocannabinol acid (THCA), which has positive effects on inflammation but won’t get you high.

Of the many psychoactive compounds in cannabis, there are two main cannabinoids researchers focus on for the study of psychoactivity: delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (delta-9 THC) and 11-hydroxy-delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (11-OH-THC). Delta-9 THC is a psychoactive cannabinoid that is formed through decarboxylation of THCA. The process of decarboxylation occurs when you apply heat or flame to cannabis (such as lighting a joint), and is used to prepare edibles (see our article “How to Make Cannabutter: Additional Recipes Included”). The delta-9 form of THC is broken down in our bodies to form 11-OH-THC. The ratio between the levels of these cannabinoids within the body determines how a high will feel. Depending on how you consume cannabis, the ratios of these cannabinoids within the body can differ greatly.

“The ratio between the levels of these cannabinoids within the body determines how a high will feel. Depending on how you consume cannabis, the ratios of these cannabinoids within the body can differ greatly.”

Higher levels of 11-OH-THC within the body are associated with an edible high, whereas higher levels of delta-9 THC within the body are associated with the high from smoking or vaping. However, whether you inhale or eat cannabis, delta-9 THC is the main psychoactive cannabinoid you are ingesting. It is the different routes of processing through the body that creates the differences in cannabinoid ratios, and thus, the different highs. Cannabinoids are carried around your body and to your brain through your bloodstream, which is largely made up of water. Delta-9 THC does not dissolve well in water. When you smoke or vape, the cannabinoids you consume are taken in by your lungs, pass into your bloodstream, and are quickly carried to binding sites on the cannabinoid receptors in your brain, since they can’t dissolve very well into your bloodstream.

Due to the method of ingestion, and the poor solubility of delta-9 THC in water, your body is unable to transform as much delta-9 THC into 11-OH-THC when you smoke or vape, as compared to when you eat edibles. Because of its poor solubility in water, delta-9 THC can’t dissolve into your blood or hang out in the bloodstream for very long, and so your body quickly finds a place for this ‘waste’ to go.

…your body is looking for the most efficient way to use cannabionoids.

While the process is more passive than active, you can think of it like this: your body is looking for the most efficient way to use this compound. Once delta-9 THC is in your bloodstream, it’s more efficient for your body to let it go straight to the cannabinoid receptors in your brain, rather than to try to send it to your liver for further processing into 11-OH-THC. So, very little 11-OH-THC will be available from smoking or vaping. This results in a larger concentration of the delta-9 form of THC binding to your cannabinoid receptors than the 11-OH-THC form when you smoke or vape, because more is available.

However, when you eat cannabis, the cannabinoids you consume must pass through the digestive tract and liver before making their way into your bloodstream. This allows enzymes to start the breakdown process and provides plenty of time for your body to transform the delta-9 form of THC into the 11-OH-THC form, before releasing the cannabinoids into the bloodstream. Since 11-OH-THC is much more soluble in your bloodstream than delta-9 THC, it can slip easily through the blood-brain barrier and bind much more quickly to your cannabinoid receptors, once metabolized by your body. This rapid binding can result in a much more intense, and potentially psychedelic, high.

So, although it may take a little longer for the psychoactive effects from an edible to come on, the resulting high can last much longer and (depending on your dosing) could be more intense than a high from smoking or vaping. The difference is clear and comes from the particular ratio of cannabinoids within the body resulting from different rates of metabolism (processing).

While you may not need to know what’s happening in your body in order to have a great experience with edibles, understanding the general processes going on behind the scenes can help add another layer of enjoyment to all of your cannabis adventures.

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