How Is Marijuana Used?
Buddy T is an anonymous writer and founding member of the Online Al-Anon Outreach Committee with decades of experience writing about alcoholism.
Lisa Sullivan, MS, is a nutritionist and a corporate health and wellness educator with nearly 20 years of experience in the healthcare industry.
February 2020 UPDATE: Recent illnesses have been associated with the use of e-cigarettes (vaping). Since the specific causes of these sometimes fatal lung injury cases are not yet known, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends refraining from all vaping products.
Marijuana can be used in more ways than simply smoking it as a cigarette. The delivery methods are important considerations for medical marijuana users as well as those who are using it recreationally, whether legally or not. Learn about the variety of methods available.
A common method of using marijuana is to roll it into a cigarette (or joint) using tobacco rolling papers and then smoking it. It can also be smoked in a pipe or a bong (which is a filtration device that uses water).
Marijuana can also be smoked in a blunt, which is a cigar that has been hollowed out to replace the tobacco with marijuana or a mixture of tobacco and marijuana.
As of December 20, 2019, the new legal age limit is 21 years old for purchasing cigarettes, cigars, or any other tobacco products in the U.S.
Some smoke marijuana in bubblers, which are mini-bongs about the size of a pipe. And, of course, one of the oldest methods of smoking marijuana—as well as hash, tobacco, and other substances—is with a hookah.
However, marijuana users are known for their creativity and ingenuity, especially when they run out of rolling papers. They can fashion bongs and pipes out of soda bottles or cans, corn cobs, and even pieces of fruit.
Marijuana smoke is carcinogenic; therefore, the American Lung Association recommends continued research to study the effects of marijuana use on lung health.
Another way to smoke marijuana using common household items is a gravity bong, sometimes called a bucket bong or waterfall bong. These can be made from plastic bottles, milk jugs, buckets, and two-liter soda bottles. The homemade gravity bongs use gravity to pull the smoke into the chamber using water, or sometimes beer or wine.
A relatively new method of consuming marijuana is by vaporization. Vaporizers heat the marijuana to a point just below the point of combustion. The active ingredients can be inhaled as a vapor, rather than as more harmful smoke.
Vaporizers are used for several reasons:
- Some claim they get a better high when they “vape.”
- Vaporizers produce less marijuana smell than smoking.
- Vaporizers are usually small and easy to conceal.
In order to deter minors, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration enacted a rule to require e-cigarette companies to cease manufacturing and selling fruit-flavored vaping products by the end of January 2020.
This method of using marijuana is somewhat similar to vaping, but it uses tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) resins extracted from the marijuana plant. (THC is the ingredient in marijuana that produces a high.) It may be in oil form (hash oil or honey oil), a soft solid form (wax or budder), or a hard solid (shatter).
A glass pipe or bong is heated with a blowtorch. When the resin extract is placed into the pipe, it creates vapor almost immediately. Dabbing is thought to produce a greater high than smoking marijuana.
Because a butane lighter is needed to bring the resins to the right smoking temperature, users are regularly exposed to high levels of methacrolein, benzene, and other toxic substances, according to research from Portland State University.
Home-baked marijuana brownies have been around for decades, but now marijuana is being baked or added to many types of food. Marijuana edibles are being produced and marketed now that medical marijuana is legal in many states and recreational marijuana use is legal in some.
Oils extracted from marijuana plants can be used in cooking, baking, or simply mixing with food to create a variety of products that can be ingested orally or taken in capsule form.
Vendors in states where recreational marijuana is legal are selling cakes, cookies, gummy bears, cereal, granola bars, and even chewing gum containing marijuana.
Marijuana oil can also be added to common beverages. It is sold in teas, sodas, and even beer. Using marijuana leaves to make tea has been done for many years. Today, however, the tea is much more potent.
While many people perceive marijuana ingestion to be less harmful than smoking, the delayed onset of marijuana effects associated with edibles, such as baked treats, is often the cause of frequent overdose.
Another relatively new method of using marijuana involves infusing liquids with THC or cannabinol (CBD) to make sprays that users can spray under the tongue. This method is typically used by medical marijuana users who want to avoid the harmful effects of smoke.
Sprays are also used in areas where marijuana is still illegal because they are difficult to detect. Some use sprays in conjunction with smoking marijuana, by spraying the differently flavored spray on joints and blunts.
Tinctures are liquids extracted from marijuana plants that are infused with a solution of alcohol or alcohol and water. The user places a few drops of the solution under the tongue and it is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream.
Because this form of marijuana is highly concentrated, highly potent, and fast-acting, it is generally used for medical purposes, but because it produces an intense high, it is often abused.
Topical oils are extracts from the marijuana plant that is thicker than the oils used in edible products. The oils are placed on the skin and are absorbed to relieve muscle pain and soreness. Because marijuana topicals do not produce a high, they are usually used for medicinal purposes only.
Marijuana is usually smoked as a cigarette called a joint or a spliff, or in a pipe or a bong, but many other methods of ingestion are used today.
Is There a Safer Way to Smoke Cannabis? How the Methods Stack Up
If you’re looking for the healthiest way to smoke cannabis, keep in mind that there’s no totally safe way to do so — even with the purest, most pesticide-free bud. Cannabis smoke contains most of the same toxins and carcinogens that make tobacco smoke harmful to your health.
There are, however, methods that may be slightly less harmful than others. Here’s a look at how different methods compare, plus some smoke-free alternatives to consider.
The dangers of smoke inhalation are well known, so it’s not surprising that a lot of folks assume vaping is the healthier alternative to smoking. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
There’s mounting evidence that vaping can have serious health effects. Much of the concern comes from inhaling vitamin E acetate, a chemical additive found in many vaping products containing tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC.
However, this risk seems to apply only to vaping concentrates, not flower. A 2006 study suggests that vaping actual cannabis, not concentrate, is less harmful to your respiratory system than smoking. Still, research on vaping cannabis is pretty limited.
Lung health aside, there’s also a matter of potency. People who vape cannabis report experiencing stronger effects — regardless of the amount of THC in the product — than they do when smoking. This means a higher chance of overdoing it, or greening out, when vaping.
Maybe a teeny, tiny bit, but nowhere near enough to make a difference.
Bongs offer a smoother toke because you don’t get the dry heat from smoking cannabis rolled in paper. Though it feels less harsh when you inhale, your lungs don’t know the difference.
Well, both still involve inhaling smoke, so there’s that. But if you had to choose the lesser of two evils, joints are probably the better option. This is because blunts are made with hollowed-out cigars, and cigars and their wrappers are highly toxic.
Even after removing all the tobacco from a cigar, cancer-causing toxins, such as nitrosamines, can remain. Plus, cigar wrappers are more porous than rolling papers, so the burning is less complete. This results in smoke with high concentrations of toxins.
Then there’s the matter of size. Blunts are a lot bigger than joints, and they hold way more pot. Smoking an entire blunt is like smoking roughly six joints.
Dabbing is supposed to give you a “cleaner” high, but what does that actually mean? Not much.
Budder — another name for dabs or marijuana concentrate — delivers a lot more THC than other weed products, often as much as 80 percent more.
Dabbing is still pretty new, so experts still don’t know the full impact.
There’s evidence that exposure to high THC may lead to long-term mental health effects, like psychosis. The risk of misuse and addiction is also higher when using high-THC products, especially for young people.
Plus, unless you have high-tech lab equipment and are trained in extraction, your dabs may be far from pure. Research shows that dabs can contain contaminants and residual solvents that can to neurotoxicity and cardiotoxicity.
Dabbing also has respiratory effects, even though you’re not technically “smoking.” There have been cases of people developing lung damage from dabbing.
The bad news? There’s no safe way to smoke cannabis. The good news? There are plenty of other ways to consume it.
Here are your main options:
- Edibles. Unlike smoking and vaping, ingesting cannabis won’t harm your lung health. The downside for some is that edibles take longer to kick in because they need to clear your digestive system before getting into your bloodstream. The upside is that the effects also hang around longer. You also have an endless variety to choose from, with everything from gummies to baked goods to cannabutter.
- Sublinguals. These are usually lumped together with edibles, but they’re not quite the same. Unlike edibles, you don’t actually swallow sublingual forms of cannabis, which include things like tinctures, films, and dissolvable tablets. Sublingual cannabis is placed under the tongue for absorption, and is absorbed through your mouth’s mucus membranes, so the effects are felt faster.
- Tinctures. Tinctures are made of alcohol-based cannabis extracts that come in bottles with droppers. You can add tinctures to drinks, but you can also get the effects faster by placing a few drops — depending on your desired dose — under your tongue.
- Topicals. Cannabis topicals are for people looking for the therapeutic benefits of cannabis without the cerebral effects. Creams, balms, and patches can be applied to the skin to relieve inflammation and pain. There’s also cannabis lubricant made for, well, sexy time.
- Suppositories. The idea of shoving cannabis up your butt (or vagina, depending on the product) may make you clench, but it’s definitely a thing. Most of the suppositories on the market are CBD-infused and used for therapeutic reasons, like pain or nausea relief, but some brands have upped their THC content for added effects.
If you’d still rather smoke your weed despite the risks, consider these harm-reduction tips to help make it a little safer:
- Don’t hold the inhale. Inhaling deeply and holding it in exposes your lungs to more tar per breath. Don’t be greedy; exhaling faster is better for you.
- Use rolling papers approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Rolling papers may seem like NBD, but some contain chemicals and flavorings that can be toxic.
- Stick to glass bongs and pipes. Plastic bongs can contain chemicals like BPA and phthalates, which have been linked to serious health effects, including cancer.
- Keep your stuff clean. Keep your bongs and pipes clean, and don’t roll your weed on dirty surfaces.
- Don’t share mouthpieces or pass joints. Sharing your stash is fine, but not your pipes, bongs, or joints. When you share these, you’re basically swapping spit with that person and putting yourself at risk for infections.
No matter how you dice it, there’s really no safe way to smoke cannabis, whether you prefer to roll one up or are partial to bongs. As cannabis becomes more popular, so do products that allow you to indulge without the smoke.
That said, if you’re partial to puffing and passing, a vaporizer that allows you to use flower, not concentrates, may be a less harmful option.
Adrienne Santos-Longhurst is a freelance writer and author who has written extensively on all things health and lifestyle for more than a decade. When she’s not holed-up in her writing shed researching an article or off interviewing health professionals, she can be found frolicking around her beach town with husband and dogs in tow or splashing about the lake trying to master the stand-up paddleboard.
You can smoke cannabis in a variety of ways, but is one safer or healthier than others?