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July 06, 2021
Why Sublingual THC Has a Different High Than Smoking, Vaping, or Edibles

BY BEN THOMAS | Photo courtesy of MedMen

In today’s fast-expanding world of new THC dosage forms, sublinguals are undoubtedly on the rise. Under-the-tongue tabs, tinctures, and sprays represent a rapidly growing subsector of the medical cannabis industry, promising relief in a variety of discreet packages. And because sublinguals are metabolized differently than other dosage forms, they’re faster-acting than edibles, while providing shorter, milder, more controlled highs.

Fans of sublingual THC say it’s well-suited for use at work or school, because it’s quick and easy to administer. It’s also absorbed into the bloodstream more quickly than the THC in edibles, often delivering relief in 15 minutes or less—and providing relatively brief, controllable effects when compared with smoking, vaping, and edibles. Sublingual weed lovers on Reddit say it helps to control their THC usage onset and impact windows—and the ability to redose more quickly makes it a good choice for medical cannabis users or those who use cannabis for anxiety.

At the same time, some critics point out that sublingual tablets and strips contain much lower concentrations of THC, and thus offer significantly lower potency than many edibles. What’s more, the body metabolizes sublinguals differently than smoked or vaped cannabis, which may reduce or even negate the psychoactive effects of the THC they contain.

Here, we’ll take a dive into the world of sublingual cannabis—and separate the anecdotal rumors from the real scientific facts.

A crash course in (sub)linguistics

It’s easy to take sublingual cannabis in a wide variety of forms. You can dissolve a tablet of it under your tongue, or drip it from a dropper as a tincture or oil, or spray it from a bottle. A growing number of canna companies, meanwhile, are rolling out sublingual THC in fast-dissolving film tabs, similar to breath-freshening strips.

The common factor among all these dosage forms is the way they deliver THC: directly into the bloodstream, via the thin mucous membrane beneath the tongue. This method can bring relief in as little as 15 minutes (much faster than an edible), while also neatly avoiding the smoke and smell of combustion-based techniques like smoking and vaping.

It’s helpful to keep in mind, though, that your body metabolizes sublingual THC differently than cannabinoids delivered through your lungs or digestive tract. Depending on how and why you use cannabis, this can either give you the exact benefits you're looking for, or be less sufficient than an edible. To see why, let’s take a closer look at how THC gives rise to its range of physical and psychological effects.

A triad of tetrahydrocannabinols

Many of us can vividly remember our first experience with a superpowered edible: that infamous brownie that seemed to do nothing at all for three impatient hours—then rocketed us from zero to "I’ve made a huge mistake" in sixty seconds flat. Some of us still wonder, to this day, how we could’ve miscalculated the dosage so drastically.

The crucial fact we failed to account for was that not all THC is created equal. The so-called “THC” in natural cannabis resin, for example, is actually a precursor chemical called tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA). Smoking or vaping cannabis, or baking it into an edible, or extracting it into an oil, converts that THCA into the psychoactive delta-9-THC we all know and love.

But even as delta-9-THC does its delightful work on your body’s endocannabinoid system, your liver is hard at work converting the rest of it into a third metabolite known as 11-Hydroxy-THC, which is even more psychoactive than delta-9-THC—and also stays in your system much longer (which is why, incidentally, it’s one of the cannabinoids that drug tests often screen for).

The key difference with edibles—and the crux of this whole section—is that all the delta-9-THC in an edible (not just some) has to pass through your liver. This process, which takes an hour or more, converts the vast majority of that THC into super-psychoactive 11-Hydroxy-THC before releasing it into your bloodstream. Result: a long-delayed mega-high that seems to explode out of nowhere, sending you soaring through the stratosphere... for hours.

What does this all have to do with sublingual THC? 

As we’ve seen, the route by which cannabis enters your body can completely transform the results, in both chemical and psychological terms. Sublingual THC, for its part, enters the bloodstream directly—bypassing the liver, and yielding in a greater percentage of milder delta-9-THC, as opposed to the more potent and long-lived 11-Hydroxy-THC. 

Sublinguals’ biochemical mildness, combined with their comparatively low concentration of THC, has stirred up some controversy about whether these products actually deliver the effects they promise, such as enhanced concentration, creativity and calmness. However, nearly a decade of scientific studies have confirmed that sublingual cannabis is not a placebo. When used correctly, it delivers cannabinoids every bit as effectively as other dosage forms.

What’s more, quite a few people report they actually prefer an understated sublingual THC session to a high-impact edible or bong hit. It comes on more gradually than smoked or vaped cannabis, but not with such a long delay that it hits hours later, out of the blue. A lower concentration of 11-Hydroxy-THC also limits the duration of an under-the-tongue high—and unlike with edibles or flower, it’s easier to control exactly how much THC you’re taking in. It's also easier to predict when to redose if you're using medical cannabis and require its ongoing benefits throughout the day.

In short, the attributes that have attracted criticism of sublingual THC are often the very same traits that continue to win new fans. While it’s probably not the ideal dosage form for a transformative day-long high, the compactness and quick action of under-the-tongue cannabis offer practical advantages over traditional smokeables and edibles, while controllable doses can make sublinguals handy for a quick pick-me-up (or calm-me-down) in the middle of a workday—or for people dipping a toe into THC for the first time.

Ben Thomas is a journalist and novelist who's lived in 40+ countries. He specializes in telling stories from the frontiers of science, history, culture, and the cosmos—and the points where all these fields intersect. Find him on Twitter at @writingben.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
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