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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 used to consume cannabis 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): The effects of cannabis can be felt within seconds to a few minutes of inhaling. The smoke/ vapour delivers the chemical that gets you high, Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), from your lungs to your bloodstream to your brain quickly. Full effects typically peak within 30 minutes, however, can last up to 6 hours after use, with some residual effects lasting up to 24 hours. It is best to wait at least 5 minutes before inhaling again.

Check out CCSA’s Cannabis: Inhaling vs Ingesting for more information.

  • 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. Watch this video to learn more about the risks of vaping and this video to learn about how to reduce the risks 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 feel the effects following ingestion as cannabis edibles are absorbed first by the stomach before travelling to the liver, your bloodstream, and finally to the brain. Full effects typically peak within 4 hours but can last for up to 12 hours after use, with some residual effects lasting 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 four hours of initial consumption 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 with residual effects lasting up to 24 hours.

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.

  • Read the cannabis label carefully for information on THC concentration.
  • Avoid inhaling too much THC at one time or consuming too much THC within four hours as this can result in over-intoxication.
  • Start low if you are new to consuming cannabis by consuming no more than 2.5 mg of THC in an edible cannabis product or no more than 100 mg/g (10%) THC content if you are smoking or vaping cannabis.

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. More research on CBD is needed to demonstrate its effectiveness on treating various medical conditions.
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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