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How Cannabis Works

Cannabis has long been used for food, textiles, medicinal purposes, rituals and as a recreational drug. The plant contains hundreds of chemical substances including cannabinoids and terpenes. Two of the most studied cannabinoids are delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). 

The human body has a system that makes its own cannabinoids. This system regulates many bodily functions. It reacts to cannabinoids put into the body, which is why using cannabis affects the way a person thinks, feels and responds. 

Each person will respond differently to cannabis. The 5 factors that affect a person’s experience of cannabis are:

The method you choose impacts how quickly you feel the effects and how long the effects last. Any method can have longer effects than expected and can have residual effects for up to 24 hours for some people.

Inhalation of cannabis (smoking, vaping, dabbing of concentrates): it takes 5 minutes to 15 minutes for THC to be absorbed by the lungs and go to the brain. The effects can last for 2 to 4 hours. It is best to wait 5 minutes before inhaling again.

  • Smoking is the most common way to use cannabis but has similar negative health effects associated with smoking of tobacco. 
  • Vaping (the heating of plant matter without burning) of cannabis may be safer than smoking, but could still cause serious damage to the lungs. See the Health Unit’s September 2019 Health Fax for the latest information related to the health impacts of vaping. 
  • Dabbing cannabis extracts with high levels of THC can lead to overconsumption for inexperienced users and is not recommended for new users of cannabis. Check out CCSA’s 7 Things You Need to Know about Cannabis Extracts

    Edible/Ingestible cannabis products: it can take 30 minutes to 2 hours to be absorbed by the stomach and liver and go to the brain (with peak effects occurring around 4 hours). The intoxicating effects can last for up to 24 hours. It is best to sample a small amount and wait to see how you respond. Because it can take up to four hours to feel the full effects, consuming more cannabis within this time period can result in over-intoxication.  Check out CCSA’s 7 Things You Need to Know about Edible Cannabis.

Oral-mucosal/sublingual cannabis concentrates can take 15 minutes to 2 hours to be absorbed by the lining of the mouth and go to the brain. The effects last for 2 to 6 hours. It is best to sample a small amount and wait for at least one hour to see how you respond.

Topical cannabis balms, oils, rubs, salves and creams are absorbed through the skin. With the main active ingredient of CBD, they do not appear to give an intoxicating effect and may provide localized relief of pain and inflammation. But more research is needed.

The amount of cannabis you consume can directly affect the experience you have. Even if you choose a lower-potency product, if you over-consume, you are more likely to experience unpleasant, negative or harmful effects. If you have limited experience with cannabis or are trying a new method of consumption, it is best to start with a very small amount and consume it slowly.

THC is most known for the “high” or the psychoactive and intoxicating effects of cannabis. The more THC in a cannabis product, the stronger its effects.

The amount of THC (or potency) in a cannabis product is said as a percentage. For example, a product that is labelled 15% THC means that THC makes up 15% (or 150 milligrams per gram) of the total cannabis content. Legal cannabis products will have the THC content listed on the label.

CBD tends to be used by people for pain relief, control of inflammation and anxiety. When consumed on its own it generally does not cause a “high” or have intoxicating effects. When a cannabis product has an equal amount of THC and CBD, CBD may lessen some of the psychoactive effects of the THC. 
Terpenes are the chemicals that people can taste and smell. Different cannabis strains are said to have a dominant terpene and may contain several others. Currently, there is no evidence from science to be able to say terpenes have any health benefits or specific therapeutic effects.
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