Ever wondered why smoking cannabis and consuming cannabis through an edible result in such different experiences? Why when I consume multiple 10-mg THC joints or take a few 13-mg bong hits, I can still pull it together to order a Quarter Pounder with Cheese and Bacon from McDonald’s, but when I eat a 10-mg cookie, I can’t divert my eyes from the second season of Planet Earth… for hours? The answer is found in anatomy and biochemistry.

Particularly, how the THC interacts with and is processed by your body.

First things first — THC is like any other drug. The effect is going to depend on the dose and the route of administration. What is particularly fascinating is that when you inhale THC you are absorbing more cannabinoids into your body than when eating an edible. The effect is immediate, and the onset is fast. This is why every additional hit or bong rip seems to take you one step closer to cloud 9. This is because the THC quickly exits the lungs via the alveoli and ventures on a much quicker and direct pathway to the brain, where it interacts with the endocannabinoid system’s CB1 and CB2 receptors.

However, it does not only venture to the brain. Since THC does not break down well in water (your blood is primarily composed of water) it will bind to other endocannabinoid receptors in the body and won’t make it to the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. The GI is where the magic happens for edibles.

When you ingest things, such as this morning’s breakfast, your body will break the compounds down into useful substances that your body can use or waste material that is eventually excreted. This process is called metabolism and it occurs primarily in your GI tract. The GI tract is a series of hollow organs joined in a long, twisting tube from the mouth to the anus (mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, and anus. The liver pancreas, and gallbladder are the solid organs of the digestive system.

Metabolism is the process responsible for producing the drastically different effects between inhaling and consuming cannabis via edibles. This was proven nearly fifty years ago when radioactive THC was administered to humans (as a tracker) and it was shown that 11-OH-THC was synthesized in the body.

What they learned was that once the THC hits your stomach and then your liver, it begins to get metabolized into an entirely different compound called 11-hydroxy-THC.

Next, 11-hydroxy-THC will link to another substance called a glucuronic acid to become 11-COOH-9-THC. This final compound is a water-soluble compound that can easily pass through the body and blood-brain barriers producing effects are much more intense. This was confirmed in a clinical trial in which patients were administered either THC or 11-OH-THC and those that were given 11-OH-THC reported feeling substantially higher. It can take up to two hours for this process to be completed, which is why the onset of your high from edibles is delayed.

When you eat an edible, nearly all of the THC makes it to your GI tract. In contrast, when you smoke, the THC is absorbed by the lungs and quickly distributes to other body tissues. A very small amount of it remains in the blood and makes it to the liver to become 11-hydroxy-THC. Thus, you have much less of this efficiently traveling metabolite that reaches the brain to produce the intense high.

Studies have shown that the ratio for 11-hydroxy-THC to THC (delta-9-THC to be exact) is much higher when eating edibles than when smoking — 5 to 60 times higher. However, it is still present. Urine drug tests are actually searching for the presence of 11-COOH-9-THC, which indicates that your body has metabolized THC in the recent past.

Thanks for reading! Drop a comment — I’d love to hear if you learned something new!

-J